Preparing for a mammogram: A step-by-step guide
The thought of a mammogram can be a little daunting, but they take just 20 minutes to complete and can save lives.
This article acts as a step-by-guide to preparing for a mammogram. By knowing what to expect and how to prepare, it is possible to minimise the stress surrounding this important procedure.
Know when to get a mammogram
The American Cancer Society recommends mammograms as the main way to detect breast cancer.
In 2015, the American Cancer Society changed their breast cancer screening recommendations. Rather than breast self-exams alone, they now advise that mammograms should be the main way to detect breast cancer.
The organisation recommends that low-risk women:
- are given the option to have mammograms at the age of 40-44
- start having annual mammograms at the age of 45-54
- switch to having mammograms every other year or annually above the age of 55
Mammograms should continue for as long as a woman is likely to live for at least another 10 years.
Women with a higher risk of developing breast cancer should discuss which tests to have and how often to have them with their doctors. This group includes:
- women who have a history of breast cancer in their families
- women who have a personal history of breast, ovarian, or other cancers
- those who carry a breast cancer gene
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests may be appropriate for high-risk women. They may also need to begin mammograms as early as age 25.
A doctor can best assess the risk of breast cancer if they have:
- a woman's detailed family history
- information about her health and lifestyle
- blood test results for the gene associated with some breast cancers
Answering the doctor's questions clearly and in detail is important. It is a good idea to look into family history prior to seeing a doctor.
1. Choose the right clinic
The clinic at which a woman chooses to have her mammogram at can affect:
- waiting time
- comfort of the procedure
- speed of the results
Normally, a doctor will refer the woman to the best clinic available. Reading online reviews ahead of time can be helpful for choosing the right clinic. A few things to consider asking before booking an appointment include:
- length of procedure
- whether cushions are offered to reduce discomfort
- speed of results
- false positive rate
In the United States, women are advised to only get mammograms at clinics accredited by the American College of Radiology.
2. Schedule the mammogram for the right time
During and immediately before a menstrual period, the breasts are often tender. Schedule the mammogram for either two weeks before or one week after a period.
Other factors may also increase pain during a mammogram. These include:
- recent breast injury
- breast infection
Women who are breastfeeding or who have experienced a recent breast injury or infection should discuss appropriate screening times with a doctor.
3. Take steps to reduce discomfort
A mammogram compresses the breast between two plates to get a clear, consistent image. Some women report pain or discomfort during the procedure.
The following strategies can reduce this:
- taking ibuprofen before the procedure
- using numbing gel
- asking the technician to adjust the speed at which the breasts are compressed
- breathing slowly and deeply into the stomach to reduce tension
- using cushions to reduce pinching and pressure
- avoiding caffeine and chocolate prior to the procedure, as they can make breast tissue more tender
4. Take prior images
Images from previous mammograms can put new images into context. This helps the radiologist to compare breast changes over time.
Request copies of old images a few weeks before the procedure. These should either be taken with the woman on the day of the procedure, or sent by the woman's doctor to their chosen clinic.
Leaving enough time to secure old images is especially important when the mammogram is carried out at a new clinic.
5. Prepare for the mammogram
Keeping hydrated before a mammogram may help. Drinking plenty of water in the hours leading up to the mammogram is therefore a good idea.
Deodorant can interfere with the mammogram, especially if it contains aluminium. Avoid antiperspirant or deodorant on the day of the procedure. If the woman does choose to wear deodorant, they should thoroughly wash their underarms with soap and water prior to the procedure.
There is no need to avoid any other foods, or to disrupt a daily routine before a mammogram. The procedure requires no recovery time, and it is possible to drive to and from the clinic.
6. Talk to the radiologist or technician
Certain information can help the technician to appropriately perform the procedure. This includes information on:
- breast cancer history
- any existing problems with the breast
- previous screenings or biopsies
- presence of breast implants
- previous breast reduction, or other surgeries on the breast
- any prior false positives
- skin allergies, especially to latex
- concerns about pain or anxiety during the procedure
- whether previous mammograms have been painful
7. Follow up with a doctor
Some clinics offer in-house results. Most women, though, will need to follow up with their own doctors. The doctor will provide the results of the mammogram, as well as information about any next steps.
Most doctors will also perform a breast exam in their office. This can help to detect anything the mammogram might have missed. Mammograms are highly sensitive but they only identify around 84 percent of breast cancer in women tested.
To help understand the results, the following points can be discussed with a doctor:
- level of risk of breast cancer
- whether there was anything unusual on the screening
- whether follow-up tests are needed
- when the next mammogram should be scheduled
- whether there are any steps to be taken to reduce breast cancer risk
8. Understand the results
More than half of women who undergo 10 or more mammograms have a false positive. If the mammogram shows a growth, this does not necessarily mean cancer. Instead, doctors look at mammograms in the context of:
- health history
- other screenings
- previous mammograms
If a mammogram detects an unusual growth, one of the following may be necessary:
- a breast examination
- a breast ultrasound
- another mammogram
- MRI screenings
- blood work
- breast biopsy
Early detection saves lives
These procedures may feel intimidating, but early detection of breast cancer saves lives.
In industrialized nations with ready access to detection tools and aggressive treatment, more than 80 percent of women who get breast cancer survive. The earlier the screening, the better the results of treatment.