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Frequently Asked Questions About Mammography and Breast Cancer

Notice: Revised breast cancer screening guidelines issued in November 2009.

What is a Mammogram?

A mammogram is a special type of x-ray imaging exam used to create detailed images of the breast. Mammography uses low dose x-ray; high contrast, high-resolution film; and an x-ray system designed specifically for imaging the breasts. In the case of digital mammography, the system is equipped with a digital receptor and a computer instead of a film cassette. Mammography plays a major role in early detection of breast cancers, which in turn, increases the chances of successful treatment and survival. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that mammography approximately 85% of all breast cancers and can detect cancer several years before a lump can be felt. Learn more about mammography.

Why is Mammography Sometimes Uncomfortable?

Patients will feel firm pressure but no significant pain. If you feel discomfort, please inform the technologist. The quality of your mammogram is greatly dependent on compression of the breast, which may sometimes cause discomfort (the discomfort is brief). Compression decreases breast motion that can cause blurry images. Thicker breast tissue also causes x-ray scatter and that degrades images. The total x-ray dose to the breast is greatly reduced by good breast compression. Breast compression also flattens the breast so that all of the tissue can be visualized in the image.

When Should I Get a Mammogram?

The National Cancer Institute recommends women 40 years of age receive a screening mammogram every one to two years. Begininning at age 50, mammography should be performed every year. Patients at high risk of breast cancer (especially those with a strong family history of breast cancer) should consult their doctor about beginning annual mammograms prior to age 40. Depending upon the results of a screening mammogram, or as part of follow up to a diagnostic mammogram, women may need to come back for additional mammography and diagnostic testing on a more frequent basis. Consult your doctor.

Do I Need a Referral (Prescription) to Receive Mammography?

No, many centers that perform mammography allow women over 40 to simply call and make an appointment for a screening mammogram without requiring a referral (prescription) from a physician.

The center performing the screening mammogram will need the name of the patient's physician to whom the mammography report can be sent. Thus, the patient can be assured of obtaining a corresponding clinical breast examination (CBE). Further, if an abnormality is found, the patient's physician will be able to set an avenue for proper follow-up.

Diagnostic mammography is usually done based on abnormalities found with screening mammography, or for women who have a breast complaint (symptom of breast irregularity). Diagnostic mammography requires a physician referral.

Does a Mammogram Take the Place of a Manual Breast Examination?

No. The best chance a woman has for early detection of breast cancer is to combine periodic mammograms with manual breast examination by an experienced doctor. The manual exam and the mammogram complement one another to offer most comprehensive defense against breast cancer. A woman should also continue her monthly self-examination.