A Guide to Your First Mammogram
Find out what you might expect when going for your first mammogram including what to wear, how it's paid for, and what the results mean.
Breast cancer screening is the #1 way to detect breast cancer early, when it's easier to treat. Localized breast cancer, or cancer that is considered early-stage, has a 99% five-year survival rate!
Because there are usually no symptoms of breast cancer until later stages, screening when you’re feeling fine and show no symptoms is the best way to find it early.
A screening mammogram is a low-dose x-ray image of the breast that is used to identify early signs of breast cancer, usually before a lump can be felt.
Clinical breast exams by a medical professional can detect changes in your breast such as a lump, discharge, or dimpling of the skin that suggest more testing is needed.
American College of Radiology (ACR) and Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) now recommend that ALL women be evaluated for breast cancer risk no later than age 30. This includes a review of personal and family history and a complete personal risk-assessment. This will determine the schedule that's right for you.
If your doctor determines you're at an average risk level for developing breast cancer, here is the American Cancer Society's recommendation for screening.
Women of average risk for breast cancer in this age range should get a screening mammogram every year. This is covered by insurance plans as part of your preventive care plan.
Women at this age can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years. This is covered by health insurance plans as part of preventive care.
If your doctor determines you at a higher risk than average for developing breast cancer, testing is likely to start earlier and different tests may be used.
A breast MRI and a mammogram are recommended every year starting at around age 30.
Download this free reference sheet about breast cancer screening. If you're age 30 or older, be sure you have a plan in place. Talk to your doctor about what's right for you.
Depending on your age and history, it is likely that your doctor will also order one or more imaging tests, such as a screening mammogram. A mammogram is an x-ray picture of tissues inside the breast. Mammograms can often show a breast lump before it can be felt. They also can show a cluster of tiny specks of calcium called microcalcifications. Lumps or specks can be from cancer, precancerous cells, or other conditions. If these are present, your doctor may request further tests to find out if abnormal cells are present.
For years, 2D mammography has been the norm for breast cancer screening. However, that’s no longer the only option. Tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammography, is a newer method of mammography that provides a more comprehensive and in-depth view of breast tissue. This is because it takes pictures from many angles rather than a single straightforward X-ray image of the breast like 2D mammography. All women can benefit from 3D mammography, but it is especially beneficial to women with dense breasts. 2D mammograms may not be able to detect some lumps in dense breasts that a 3D mammogram would more than likely pick up. If you have dense breasts or would simply prefer to be examined with an updated method, talk with your physician to see if this option is available.
This is the perfect time to speak with your doctor about any unusual changes you may have noticed in your breasts. If you suspect something isn’t right, brushing it aside will only add to your stress level. Remember, you know your health and body best, so don’t be afraid to speak up about something that doesn’t look or feel normal.
During a clinical breast exam, your healthcare provider will perform a thorough check of your breasts. You may be asked to raise your arms over your head, let them hang by your sides, or press your hands against your hips.
Your healthcare provider will look for differences in size or shape between your breasts. The skin of your breasts is checked for a rash, dimpling, or other abnormal signs. Your nipples may be squeezed to check for fluid.
Using the pads of the fingers to feel for lumps, your health care provider checks your entire breast, underarm, and collarbone area. A lump is generally the size of a pea before anyone can feel it. The exam is done on one side and then the other. Your doctor checks the lymph nodes near the breast to see if they are enlarged.
If a lump has been detected, your doctor will feel its size, shape, and texture. He or she will also check to see if the lump moves easily. Benign (non-cancerous) lumps often feel different from cancerous ones. Lumps that are soft, smooth, round, and movable are likely to be benign. A hard, oddly shaped lump that feels firmly attached within the breast is more likely to be cancer, but further tests need to be done before a diagnosis can be made.
Talk to your gynecologist or primary care physician at your annual exam about the right breast cancer screening schedule for you.
If you don’t have a doctor, it's still possible to schedule a low-cost or free mammogram in Colorado. Visit freemammogram.org for more information.