Mammograms do not prevent breast cancer, but they are vital to the detection of the disease when it's still in its early stages and easier to treat. Diagnosing breast cancer early reduces the chance of dying from the illness by 30 percent or more. Additionally, prompt detection means local cancers (which have not metastasized) are treatable without mastectomy (breast removal).
Are Mammograms Risky?
A mammogram involves a low-dose X-ray that emits a minimal amount of radiation (less than a standard chest X-ray). The procedure is safe. Specialists examine the scan for any changes or abnormalities developing in the breast tissue. The primary risk mammograms carry is that false negatives and false positives are possible. Sometimes an abnormality that looks like cancer — such as a cyst or dense breast tissue — is reported but turns out to be benign.
Normal breast tissue also sometimes conceals cancer that fails to show up on the scan. Both false positives and false negatives can cause stress and upset, and the limitations in mammography mean additional screening methods may be necessary.
Performing breast self-exams and getting regular clinical breast exams from your healthcare provider are also important. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other scanning techniques are sometimes ordered to analyze the breast tissue.
But mammography is still the most powerful method for detecting abnormalities. It is recommended that women begin having yearly mammograms by age 40, or earlier if they are at high risk. By age 55, a mammogram every other year is recommended. Regardless of age, all women should report any changes in their breasts to their doctor.
What to Know Before Your Mammogram
What to Expect at Your Mammogram
The procedure takes about 20 minutes. Breast tissue is compressed between two plates for a few seconds while an X-ray scan is taken. The breast will then be repositioned and compressed again to get an image from a different angle. The process is then repeated on the other breast. Your facility may provide same-day results, or it can take up to 30 days to receive them. If your doctor finds anything of concern, you will usually be contacted within a week to take new images or undergo further tests. Your doctor may also order additional tests if this is your first mammogram, for comparison purposes.
Medicare and nearly all private insurers cover annual mammograms with no co-pay or out-of-pocket costs. Free and lost-cost options are also available for uninsured or low-income women. Contact the American Cancer Society Helpline at 1-800-227-2345 for more information and to find a program near you.