A mammogram is probably the most important tool doctors have to help them diagnose, evaluate, and follow women who've had breast cancer.
Safe and highly accurate, a mammogram is an X-ray photograph of the breast. The technique has been in use for about thirty years.
Mammograms don't prevent breast cancer, but they can save lives by finding breast cancer as early as possible. For example, mammograms have been shown to lower the risk of dying from breast cancer by 35% in women over the age of 50; studies suggest for women between 40 and 50 they may lower the risk of dying from breast cancer by 25–35%.
Finding breast cancers early with mammography has also meant that many more women being treated for breast cancer are able to keep their breasts. When caught early, localized cancers can be removed without resorting to breast removal (mastectomy).
4 Important Things to Know About Mammograms
1. They can save your life. Finding breast cancer early reduces your risk of dying from the disease by 25 - 30% or more. Women should begin having mammograms yearly at age 40, or earlier if they're at high risk.
2. Don't be afraid. It's a fast procedure (about 5 - 10 minutes), and discomfort is minimal. The procedure is safe: there's only a very tiny amount of radiation exposure from a mammogram. To relieve the anxiety of waiting for results, go to a center that will give you results before you leave.
3. Get the best quality you can.
- If you have dense breasts or are under age 50, try to get a digital mammogram.
- Bring your old mammogram films with you for comparison.
- Correlate your results with other tests you've had done, like ultrasound or MRI.
Discuss your family history of breast and other cancers—from both your mother's AND father's side—with your doctor.
4. It is our most powerful breast cancer detection tool.
However, mammograms can still miss 15—20% of breast cancers that are simply not visible using this technique. Other important tools—such as breast self-exam, clinical breast examination, ultrasound, and MRI—can and should be used as complementary tools, but there are no substitutes or replacements for a mammogram.
What does the Mammography equipment look like?
A mammography unit is a rectangular box that houses the tube in which x-rays are produced. The unit is used exclusively for x-ray exams of the breast, with special accessories that allow only the breast to be exposed to the x-rays. Attached to the unit is a device that holds and compresses the breast and positions it so images can be obtained at different angles.
How is the procedure performed?
Mammography is performed on an outpatient basis. A radiographer helps you to position one breast at a time on a small flat plate, with an X-ray plate under it. There is another flat plate above your breast. When the machine is switched on, your breast is pressed down between the plates by the machine for a few moments. The compression of the breast helps to give a clear picture for the doctors to examine.
Breast compression is necessary in order to:
- Even out the breast thickness so that all of the tissue can be visualized.
- Spread out the tissue so that small abnormalities won't be obscured by overlying breast tissue.
- Allow the use of a lower x-ray dose since a thinner amount of breast tissue is being imaged.
- Hold the breast still in order to eliminate blurring of the image caused by motion.
- Reduce x-ray scatter to increase sharpness of picture.
The patient must hold very still and may be asked to keep from breathing for a few seconds while the x-ray picture is taken to reduce the possibility of a blurred image. The technologist w