A Guide to Mammograms

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October 19th is National Mammography Day. A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray that allows specialists to look for changes in the tissue of the breast. We hear this term and official recommendations regarding it often, but are you still confused about when you should start having a mammogram? And how often? You are not alone.

Over the past few years, some researchers have questioned the best timing and frequency for mammograms. However, the importance of a mammogram in the prevention and detection of cancer has not been contested. These images are the best test doctors have to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to a few years before it can be physically felt in the breast. At Medical Associates, we believe in the value of this early detection. Early detection leads to better outcomes and lowers the need for more aggressive treatments. For this reason we adhere to the recommendation of the American Cancer Society and recommend that all women age 40 and older have a yearly mammogram.

We realize a mammogram is an uncomfortable procedure for most women. The first one can be especially nerve-racking if you are not sure what to expect. Our team of professional, trained specialists want to assure you that there is nothing to fear. At your mammogram, you will stand in front of a special X-ray machine. The technologist will place your breast on a plastic imaging plate. Another clear plate will firmly press your breast from above. The plates will flatten the breast, holding it still while the X-ray is taken. You will feel some pressure during this time, but the compression of the breast only lasts a few seconds. This process is repeated to capture a side view of the breast, and then the whole process is repeated on the opposite breast. The entire procedure lasts about 20 minutes. Most X-ray techs aiding in your mammogram are women, and you and the technologist are the only ones in the room during the exam. A radiologist, a doctor trained to read mammograms and radiology exams, will later read your mammogram images.

A fairly recent development in mammography technology is something called a 3D mammogram. This type of image is done in tandem with the standard 2D exam. Compression of the breast may last a few seconds longer while the additional information is acquired. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that 3D mammography, when compared to 2D mammography, finds a 41 percent increase in the detection of invasive breast cancers and 29 percent increase in the detection of all breast cancers. 3D mammography also provides a 15 percent reduction in recall rates, decreasing the number of patients that need further imaging to make a determination. Medical Associates does offer this technology, but we ask you to check with your insurance company on your coverage. Because 3D mammography technology is fairly new, some insurance companies do not cover the additional charge.

Some women do experience discomfort during the mammogram process described above. Your breasts may be more tender or swollen close to or during your period. Try to avoid scheduling your mammogram during this time to help reduce any discomfort. Our technologists also advise that you not wear any deodorant, powder, or cream under your arms or chest on the day of your mammogram. Some of these items can show up on the images as white spots, prompting the need for new images. Mammograms are also best interpreted when compared with previous exams. This allows the radiologist to compare the images and look for changes in the breast tissue. If possible, try to get your mammogram from the same place each year, or provide the medical facility with a copy of any past mammograms.

You will usually get the results of your mammogram within a few weeks. If you are asked to come in for more imaging after a mammogram, do not be alarmed. This is fairly common and it does not mean that you have cancer. Additional imaging typically means more pictures, or even an ultrasound, may need to be done to look at a certain area more carefully. This is more common the first time you have a mammogram, as there are no previous images to compare your recent exam to. It is also fairly common in mammograms done in women before menopause.

It’s also important to note that an abnormal mammogram does not always mean you have cancer. You will need to have additional testing or procedures before the doctor can make that determination. You may also be referred to a specialist, but it does not necessarily mean you have cancer. It simply means an expertly trained physician will work with you providing follow up tests to either make a diagnosis or determine there is no cancer.

The mammography program at Medical Associates is accredited by the State of Iowa and the Food and Drug Administration. Our radiology technologists are educated, trained, and licensed professionals. If you would like to schedule your annual mammogram or have further questions regarding this test, please call your primary care provider.




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