A guide to preparing for a mammogram
The thought of a mammogram can be daunting, but they take just 20 minutes to complete and can save lives.
This article offers a step-by-guide to preparing for a mammogram. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare can help minimize the stress that some people experience.
Know when to get a mammogram
A mammogram is a part of the routine screening.
A mammogram is a diagnostic tool and a key part of routine screening for breast cancer.
A doctor may recommend a mammogram if there is a change to the breast, such as a lump, that could indicate breast cancer or if the person's age or level of risk means that they would benefit from routine screening.
Recommendations vary as to how often a person should have a mammogram, but recent guidelines from the American College of Physicians suggest the following for women who have an average risk of developing breast cancer:
Age 40–49 years: The woman should ask her doctor whether routine screening is a good idea.
Age 50–74 years: A woman should consider screening once every 2 years.
Age 75 and above: At this age, or if the person has a life expectancy of 10 years or less, there is no need to screen for breast cancer.
People whose risk of breast cancer is higher may need more frequent screening. These people include those with:
- a personal history of breast cancer or a high risk breast lesion
- genetic factors, such as a mutation on the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene
- childhood radiation exposure to the chest
The American Cancer Society make different recommendations.
Each person's case will be different. The individual should ask their doctor for recommendations.
People can use the following steps to prepare for a mammogram.
1. Choose the right clinic
The clinic that a person chooses for their mammogram can affect:
- waiting time
- speed of the results
A few things to consider asking before booking an appointment include:
- how long the procedure will take
- how quickly the results will be ready
- the rate of false positive results
A false positive result means that the mammogram image suggests the presence of a lump indicating cancer, when, in reality, there is no lump, or it is not cancer. This result can cause additional anxiety and may lead to unnecessary procedures, such as a biopsy.
Breast Cancer.org advise people to choose a clinic that the American College of Radiology have accredited. People can also check that the clinic has the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Alternatively, they can proactively search for an FDA-certified facility.
2. Schedule at the right time
Some people can find a mammogram uncomfortable.
During and immediately before a menstrual period, the breasts are often tender. For this reason, it is better to schedule the mammogram for either 2 weeks before or 1 week after a period.
Other factors that may increase discomfort during a mammogram include:
- a recent breast injury
- a breast infection, or mastitis
People 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 for a few seconds to get a clear, consistent image. Some women report pain or discomfort during this part of the procedure. The mammogram takes about 20 minutes in total.
The following strategies can help reduce this discomfort:
- taking ibuprofen before the procedure or using a numbing gel
- asking the technician to adjust the speed of compression
- breathing slowly and deeply to reduce tension
- using cushions to minimize pinching and pressure
- avoiding caffeine and chocolate before the procedure, as they can increase the feeling of tenderness
- wearing a skirt or pants so that you only need to remove the top half of your clothing
4. Take prior images along
The results of previous mammograms can put new images into context. Showing the radiologist earlier images can help them compare breast changes over time.
The person should request copies of old images a few weeks before the procedure and take them on the day. Sometimes, the doctor will send them to the chosen clinic.
It is especially important to do this in good time if the mammogram is taking place at a new clinic.
5. Prepare for the mammogram
It is beneficial to stay hydrated before a mammogram, so a person should try to drink plenty of water in the hours leading up to it.
Deodorant can interfere with the mammogram, especially if it contains aluminum, so it is important to avoid using antiperspirant or deodorant on the day of the procedure. Alternatively, a person can wear deodorant and then thoroughly wash their underarms with soap and water before the procedure.
There is no need to avoid any 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 perform the procedure.
A person can prepare by being ready to tell them about:
- any breast cancer history
- any existing problems with the breast
- previous screenings or biopsies
- the presence of any 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, but most women will need to follow up with their doctor. The doctor will provide the results of the mammogram, as well as information about any next steps.
To help understand the results, the person can ask their doctor about the following points:
- the individual's level of risk of breast cancer
- whether the results show anything unusual
- whether the doctor recommends any follow-up tests
- when to have the next mammogram
- any steps that can reduce breast cancer risk
8. Understand the results
Sometimes, there will be a false positive result. The mammogram may show a growth that is not cancer.
To understand the significance of an individual's mammogram result, the doctor will consider:
- the individual's health history
- other screenings and results
- previous mammograms
If a mammogram reveals an unusual growth, one of the following may be necessary:
Early detection saves lives
Breast cancer screening can feel intimidating, but early detection of breast cancer saves lives.
According to the American Cancer Society, 99% of people who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer in the early stages and have treatment will live for at least another 5 years after their diagnosis.
For this reason, it is important to undergo screening and to ask a doctor about any unexplained or unusual changes in the breasts.
Is it dangerous to have too many mammograms?
As the saying goes, “too much of any one thing can be a bad thing.” I think this is true for mammograms, which use X-rays to project an image of your breasts. Mammograms expose you to a very low dose of radiation.
A person should follow their doctor’s recommendation on how often they should screen. Having additional mammograms means higher exposure to radiation, unnecessary testing, and an increased likelihood of false positives, which can lead to anxiety.Christina Chun, MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.