A mammogram is an X-ray of the breasts that helps detect breast cancer. The mammogram process varies, but typically takes about 20–40 minutes and may take a few weeks to get results.

Mammograms can detect breast cancer in the early stages, even before someone notices a lump.

Early detection allows doctors to treat breast cancer more successfully. The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that regular mammograms are an essential part of routine annual healthcare for females over the age of 45 years with an average risk of breast cancer.

In 2018, almost 67% of females over the age of 40 years in the United States had a mammogram to check their breast health. Sometimes, knowing what to expect before and after can help people feel more at ease during the process.

In this article, we discuss the mammogram process in more detail, including how long it takes and the different mammogram types.

Technician prepares to take a mammagram of a female patientShare on Pinterest
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A mammogram is a quick procedure. Typically, the entire process takes about 15 minutes, according to Planned Parenthood.

After a mammogram, a technician checks the image for quality. A longer appointment time may be necessary if the image needs retaking because it is unclear or does not include the entire breast.

A mammogram compresses the breast tissue between a platform and a plastic plate to obtain a good image of the entire breast. Some people may find this uncomfortable, but it should not cause pain.

People can minimize the discomfort by considering their menstrual cycle when booking a mammogram. As the breasts are often tender and swollen in the days leading up to a menstrual period, individuals may wish to avoid scheduling a mammogram appointment for 1 week before a menstrual period and during it.

A mammogram involves taking an X-ray of each breast while pressing it between a platform and plastic plate. The process usually involves the following steps:

  1. The individual changes into a hospital gown and goes into the X-ray room.
  2. The technician asks the person to stand next to the mammogram machine and remove one of their arms from the gown.
  3. The technician gently positions the breast on the machine’s flat plate and then lowers a second plate to spread and compress the breast tissue.
  4. The individual will need to hold their breath while the technician takes an X-ray image.
  5. The technician then lifts the plate and repositions the breast for a second image using a different angle.
  6. They then repeat the process for the second breast.
  7. The technician checks the X-rays to ensure that the images are clear and provide a good picture of the entire breast. If not, it will be necessary to repeat the process.

Doctors categorize mammograms as either screening or diagnostic.

Screening mammogram

A screening mammogram forms part of someone’s regular annual health examination. A person has a screening mammogram when they have no specific problems. The purpose of a screening mammogram is to detect any signs of breast cancer as early as possible.

Diagnostic mammogram

Doctors use diagnostic mammograms to find out more information about specific areas of the breast. An individual may have a diagnostic mammogram if:

  • they have a lump or other symptoms that could relate to breast cancer
  • their screening mammogram highlights a suspicious area of breast tissue
  • doctors want to reevaluate an area following cancer treatment
  • they have breast implants that obscure the breast tissue behind them on a regular screening mammogram

The differences between 2D and 3D mammograms

A 2D mammogram is the standard of care for most individuals. It creates one image from the top of the breast and a second from the side.

These images can overlap, which can make the results more difficult for a radiologist to evaluate if a person has dense breast tissue.

A 3D mammogram, also known as tomosynthesis, produces a 3D image of the breast by taking multiple pictures from different angles. A 3D mammogram may detect some breast cancers that a 2D mammogram would not. It may also allow doctors to see beyond areas of density in people with dense breast tissue.

Various studies indicate that 3D mammograms may be more effective in finding cancer than 2D mammograms and produce fewer false positives. A false positive occurs when a mammogram identifies an abnormality that further testing reveals to be normal tissue.

Most people receive their mammogram results within a few weeks of having the test. The time it takes to receive the results depends on whether they had a screening or diagnostic mammogram.

A radiologist usually looks at the X-ray images within a couple of days of the individual’s mammogram appointment and then sends their findings to the person’s primary care physician (PCP).

The PCP then mails the individual the results, which can take a few days. Alternatively, they may immediately contact the individual if the mammogram shows any abnormalities.

People should talk with their healthcare team before a mammogram to determine when they can expect their results. The timings may change depending on the facility’s processes. If an individual does not receive their results within 2 weeks, they should follow up with a doctor.

Usually, a person receives a letter that summarizes the tests’ findings and informs them whether they need to schedule a follow-up appointment.

The mammogram results indicate whether a person has signs of abnormalities in the breast. Abnormal findings do not necessarily mean that the person has breast cancer. The ACS states that less than 10% of people with an abnormal mammogram have cancer.

However, doctors typically call back anyone with abnormal mammogram results to rule out any problems or begin any necessary treatment as soon as possible. Typically, a person will learn the results during this follow-up appointment.

When the person returns, they will likely have a diagnostic mammogram rather than a screening mammogram, as a diagnostic mammogram takes more pictures. They may also have an ultrasound test, which creates an image of the inside of the breasts using sound waves.

A radiologist may decide that an MRI scan of the breast will provide more information about the abnormality. In some cases, they may ask the individual to return to have a biopsy of the breast tissue.

A surgical or needle biopsy takes a piece of the abnormal breast tissue so that a technician can examine the cells under a microscope to determine whether they are cancerous.

The person might not need any further treatment if the additional tests do not flag anything.

A mammogram is an essential part of regular breast care for females over the age of 45 years. It can detect cancer in the early stages, when doctors can treat it most effectively.

The mammogram process takes about 15 minutes, and people should expect their results within 2 weeks.

If a mammogram detects an abnormality, this does not necessarily mean that a person has breast cancer. However, the individual will usually need to return for further testing so that a doctor can make an accurate diagnosis.