Plus, when to start if you have a family history of breast cancer.
The thought of mammograms can be scary, especially when you think about a big piece of machinery squishing a delicate area of the body. After all, who can really say they aren't nervous about an appointment that can potentially lead to a scary diagnosis?
Even though it can be confusing to know when to get your first mammogram, how family history affects that decision, or where to go for care if you've never gotten one before, understanding what you can expect can help make the whole experience less intimidating. Dr. Laurie Margolies, chief of breast imaging and professor of radiology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, has everything you need to know about mammograms — because they can save your life.
What Age Should I Get My First Mammogram?
Dr. Margolies says that an average-risk person should start getting mammograms at 40. That's because breast cancer is the next most common cancer for women in the United States, after skin cancers, according to the CDC. One out of eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed in their lifetime. And breast cancer is "the second most common cause of death from cancer among white, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women."
How Often Should I Get Mammograms?
For women 45 to 54, the American Cancer Society recommends getting a mammogram every year. And women 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years or continue yearly screening, depending on their history. It is important to note that the Society emphasized the importance of continuing to get screened, regardless of age. In fact, if a woman is healthy and expected to live for another 10+ years, she should continue to get mammograms — you can get breast cancer at any age.
Does Family History Change When I Get Mammograms?
According to the CDC about 3% of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. are a result of inherited genes. If you have one first-degree relative (sister, mother, daughter, etc.) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is higher than the average person. The more relatives you have with breast cancer, the more your risk factor can increase.
While not all people with inherited genes go on to develop breast cancer, you should make your mammogram appointment sooner rather than later if there is a family history. Dr. Margolies recommends starting 10 years younger than the age of the family member when they were diagnosed. For example, if your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, you should begin screenings at the age of 35.
What Happens During the Mammogram Procedure?
The first time you do anything — especially a medical procedure — can be nerve-wracking. Margolies thinks it's important to learn exactly what a mammogram screening entails before your appointment, so you know what to expect in order to lessen your anxiety.
The purpose of a mammogram is to take pictures of your breasts. Your breast will rest on a plastic plate, while a second plate presses down from above. There will be some pressure, but the point is to spread out the breast tissue for an X-ray, which can spot any potential abnormalities in cells. As soon as the picture is taken, the compression is released. The process is repeated on the other breast, and they may also take side images of the breasts. A technologist will be with you and helping you the whole time.
You may have questions about the equipment being used and whether or not it will expose you to radiation. Dr. Margolies assures that there is no dangerous risk to the patient during or after using the mammography tools. “Our current mammogram technology has such low-dose imaging that there is close to zero risk, if not zero risk, any problems from radiation would occur," she says.
How Long Does the Mammogram Take?
Just a few moments, like an X-ray at a dentist appointment.
Are Mammograms Painful?
Mammograms are a different experience for everyone, but it's common to feel slight discomfort during the screening.
“Some pain and discomfort is common, but it typically lasts only for a minute," Dr. Margolies says. It can be common for older women to experience pain for a bit longer if they have fragile or dry skin. These women may even notice a slight tear underneath the breast where the skin is thinner. To treat this, Dr. Margolies recommends topical antibiotics and over-the-counter creams to heal the skin.
If you experience soreness after your mammogram appointment, Dr. Margolies recommends taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication.
The key takeaway is that women should not worry about the pain or the appointment: “It is OK to be a little anxious, but mammograms shouldn't be debilitating anxiety," Dr. Margolies says.
What Else Should I Know for the Appointment?
- Try not to have the appointment when you're on your period or experiencing PMS symptoms. Your breasts may be sore or tender.
- Don't worry about wearing deodorant, perfume or powder for the appointment. These products can show up as spots on the X-ray.
- You'll have to undress from the waist up for the mammogram, so it may be helpful to wear a shirt with pants or a skirt (instead of a full dress).
When Will I Get My Mammogram Results?
Typically in a few weeks. Call your health care provider or mammography facility if you do not hear back in 30 days.
What If My Results Are Abnormal?
Take a breath and try not to worry — an abnormal mammogram does not always mean you have cancer. Your doctor may have you do additional tests and exams or even refer you to a breast specialist for an expert assessment. This all is to help diagnose breast cancer or determine that there is no cancer.
Where Can I Get a Mammogram Near Me?
- To find a mammography facility near you by ZIP code, use the search tool on the FDA's website here.
- And for help finding low-cost and free mammograms, visit the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
- You can also talk to your doctor or health care provider or referrals or recommendations