Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, and it is highly treatable in the early stages. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that can detect changes in breast tissue.
In many countries, there is the option of undergoing regular mammogram screenings, as these can help detect breast cancer in the early stages.
The imaging process can involve some discomfort. However, a person can take steps to reduce it, and any pain usually passes quickly.
A mammogram is quick and noninvasive. It requires no recovery time, and it can save lives.
A mammogram takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. A technician will place the breast between two plates. One plate takes an image of the breast, and the other holds the breast in place.
The images allow the radiographer and the doctor to see if there are unusual changes in the breast. If there is any indication that a change could be cancerous, the doctor will recommend further tests.
Gently compressing the breast keeps it stable and provides a clearer image of the breast tissue.
A number of factors affect whether a mammogram hurts, including:
- the skill of the technician
- anxiety about the mammogram
- the structure of the breast
If the machine is not in the right position, this can also cause issues. For example, some people have to contort their backs, due to the height of the machine. This can lead to back or neck pain from muscle strain.
It is important to let the technician know if the position feels uncomfortable, as this can mean that the machine is at the wrong height.
Anyone with fibrocystic breasts — referring to the presence of harmless cysts — is more likely to experience pain during a mammogram.
A mammogram can help detect breast cancer in the early stages. Here, learn more about early signs of the disease.
The first step is to choose a suitable clinic.
Breast Cancer.org advise people to use clinics that have American College of Radiology accreditation.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)provides a register of approved providers in each area.
Next, a person can do several things to reduce the discomfort of a mammogram:
Timing: Schedule the mammogram for the week after a menstrual period. During and immediately before a period, hormonal swings can increase breast sensitivity.
History: Inform the technician about fibrocystic breasts and any history of painful mammograms.
Caffeine and tobacco: Consuming less caffeine and avoiding smoking may help reduce breast tenderness, according to a 2016 study. The research did not specify, however, the effect during a mammogram.
Drugs: Taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, 45–60 minutes before the screening may help reduce the pain.
Padding: Some mammography centers offer padding, such as the brand MammoPad. Cushioning between the breasts and the plates of the machine can significantly reduce pain.
Breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths prior to the imaging can reduce tension-induced pain, and it may ultimately help produce a more accurate image.
Stay still during the imaging: Moving — even taking a breath — while the technician is actually taking the X-ray can blur the image.
Delaying if breastfeeding: Anyone who is breastfeeding, but who will wean soon, may want to delay mammograms to avoid pain.
Notify the technician of any pain, particularly if it is severe. A mammogram should never hurt so much that it deters a person from future screening.
If a person is not comfortable with their technician, they may wish to ask for a different technician next time or try a different mammography center.
Many technicians are willing to take time to reduce pain. Rushing the screening can increase the risk of discomfort, while a careful approach can ensure proper placement in the machine, which can reduce the risk of pinching and other sources of pain.
Anyone who has previously had a mammogram should take their old images with them or ensure that their doctor grants the clinic access.
This allows the health professional to compare old and new results. A comparison can increase accuracy and prevent false positive or false negative readings.
For example, a person with cysts that a doctor has already confirmed are harmless may get a false positive reading if there is no previous mammogram for comparison.
Likewise, if a healthcare professional has previously spotted a small growth, the doctor can use this prior knowledge to monitor for changes. Without reference to previous results, a small growth might go unnoticed.
When to expect results
In most cases, the results will be ready in about a week. Some clinics offer same day results.
The results can be complicated, and a doctor will often want to discuss them in person. A positive result on a mammogram can cause concern and anxiety, but it does not necessarily mean that cancer is present.
Most positive mammograms require further diagnostic tests, and many find lumps that are not cancerous.
When mammograms show unusual growths, follow-up tests are necessary. These can include:
When cancer is present, early treatment dramatically increases the rates of survival. According to the American Cancer Society, a person with a diagnosis of breast cancer at stage 0 or stage 1 has a 99% chance of living for at least another 5 years.
Mammograms are very safe, but they involve brief exposure to very low levels of radiation. For this reason, a doctor is unlikely to recommend one during pregnancy.
The risk of radiation exposure is minimal, and mammograms remain an important screening method for healthy women outside of pregnancy.
The main limitations of mammograms are:
False positive results: The image may indicate that cancer is present when it is not, leading to unnecessary further testing and, potentially, anxiety. Bringing previous results can help reduce this risk.
False negative results: A mammogram may not reveal a lump or change that is very small. Some changes — particularly in dense breast tissue — do not show up.
Mammograms do not detect all breast cancers: Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but aggressive type that causes skin changes, swelling, pain, and inflammation. There may or may not be a lump.
Due to the limitations of the imaging technology, it is important for everyone to be familiar with the regular shape and feel of their breasts in order to recognize unusual changes.
American College of Physicians guidelines from 2019 recommend the following screening schedule for women with an average risk of breast cancer:
Ages 40–49 years: Ask a doctor for guidance.
Ages 50–75 years: Undergo mammography screening every 2 years.
After 75 years: Discontinue screening.
In a person with a life expectancy of fewer than 10 years, a doctor will also recommend discontinuing mammograms.
People with any of the following may need additional screening:
- a personal history of breast cancer or high-risk breast lesions
- genetic factors, such as mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
- a history of chest radiation exposure during childhood
People should discuss their history and risk levels with their doctor, who can make personalized recommendations.
Other organizations, including the American Cancer Society, have different guidance.
Each person should speak to their doctor about whether to have regular screening, as the right choice varies among individuals.
A mammogram is a simple and noninvasive screening that does not take long. It also requires minimal preparation and recovery time.
As a result of scientific advances, detecting and treating breast cancer in the early stages means that there is usually an excellent chance of survival.
A mammogram can be uncomfortable for a short time, but it is a useful tool for detecting and treating breast cancer.
Learn more about how to prepare for a mammogram here.
Are the screening and development of breast cancer the same for trans people and cisgender men as they are for cisgender women?
Breast cancer occurs in the breast cells or tissues. Even though cisgender men do not have milk-producing breasts, their breast cells and tissues can still develop cancer. In short, a transgender person can develop breast cancer.
All adults who have a genetic mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are almost always referred to regular screening mammography. For the most part, it’s important to practice breast self-awareness so that unusual changes can be discussed with doctors.
Christina Chun, MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.