Why mammograms matter

A mammogram is the best imaging tool that healthcare providers can use to detect early signs of breast cancer. Early detection can make all the difference in successful cancer treatment.

Getting a mammogram for the first time may cause anxiety. It’s hard to know what to expect if you’ve never done it. But scheduling a mammogram is an important and proactive step in taking care of your health.

Being prepared for the mammogram may help ease your mind as you get ready for your exam. Keep reading to learn more about the procedure and what to expect in terms of pain.

Everyone experiences mammograms differently. Some women may feel pain during the procedure, and others may not feel anything at all.

Most women feel some discomfort during the actual X-ray process. The pressure against your breasts from the testing equipment can cause pain or discomfort, and that’s normal.

This part of the process should only last for a few minutes. Still, other women feel extreme pain during the exam. Your pain level may vary with every mammogram you receive depending on:

  • the size of your breasts
  • the timing of the exam in relation to your menstrual cycle
  • the variations in positioning for the mammogram

When scheduling your mammogram, take your menstrual cycle into account. The week after your period ends tends to be the ideal time to get a mammogram. Avoid scheduling your exam for the week before your period. That’s when your breasts will be most tender.

The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends that women of average risk for developing breast cancer risk between the ages of 40-49 should speak to their healthcare provider about whether to start getting mammograms before age 50.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women of average risk for developing breast cancer schedule their first mammogram by age 45, with the option to start at age 40.

After age 45, you should get a mammogram at least once per year with the option to switch to every other year at age 55.

While the ACP and ACS recommendations vary slightly, the decision when and how often to get mammograms should be a decision between you and your healthcare provider.

If you’re of average risk for developing breast cancer, you should begin talking to your healthcare provider about mammograms at age 40.

If you do have a family history of breast cancer, especially early breast cancer, tell your healthcare provider. They may recommend more frequent mammograms.

Before your mammogram, you may want to take an over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin (Bayer) or ibuprofen (Advil), if your healthcare provider determines it’s a safe option based on your medical history.

This may reduce your risk of discomfort during the mammogram and reduce soreness afterward.

When you arrive at your healthcare provider’s office, you’ll need to answer some questions about your family history and any prior mammograms, if you’ve had any. This is very important for the imaging team to know.

Most likely, you’ll be taken to a separate waiting room that’s specifically for women getting mammograms. You’ll wait there until it’s time for your exam.

Shortly before the actual exam, you’ll need to undress from the waist up. The nurse or X-ray technician may place special stickers over areas of your breasts where you have birthmarks or other skin markings. This will decrease confusion if these areas show up on your mammogram.

The nurse or X-ray technician may also place stickers on your nipples, so the radiologist knows where they are positioned when looking at the mammogram.

They will then position your breasts, one at a time, on a plastic imaging plate. Another plate will compress your breast while the technician captures X-rays from several angles.

The breast tissue needs to be spread out so that the projected image can detect inconsistencies or lumps in the breast tissue.

You will get the results of your mammogram within 30 days. If anything is abnormal in the X-ray scan, you may be instructed to get another mammogram or other form of additional testing.

Some women do report feeling sore after they get a mammogram. This tenderness shouldn’t be worse than any pain you feel during the actual X-ray process.

The level of soreness or sensitivity you feel after a mammogram is impossible to predict. It has a lot to do with:

  • the positioning during the exam
  • the shape of your breasts
  • your personal pain tolerance

Some women may even have minor bruising, especially if they’re on blood thinning medication.

You may find that wearing a padded sports bra is more comfortable than wearing a bra with underwire for the rest of the day of your mammogram.

However, most women who get mammograms don’t feel any lingering pain at all once the procedure is over.

A mammogram shouldn’t cause alarming or long-term side effects to your breast tissue.

Like all X-ray exams, mammography exposes you to a small amount of radiation. Because of this, there’s an ongoing debate about exactly how often women should get mammograms.

Oncologists agree that the amount of radiation is minimal, and the benefits of being tested early for breast cancer outweigh any risk or side effects of the radiation.

If you notice any visible bruising on your breasts or still feel sore a full day after your mammogram takes place, you should let your healthcare provider know.

These symptoms aren’t cause for alarm, but there’s nothing wrong with voicing your experience or discomfort after any imaging study.

Your healthcare provider will be sent the results of your breast imaging. The imaging center will notify you of the results as well. If you have any questions, or have not received notification of the results of your study, call your healthcare provider’s office.

If the nurse or X-ray technician spots anything unusual in your results, they may recommend that you get a second mammogram.

A breast sonogram may also be recommended as the next method of testing. It’s also possible that you will need to have a biopsy performed if irregularities were detected in your mammogram.

If nothing abnormal is found, you should plan to return for your next mammogram within the next 12 months. For some women of average risk for developing breast cancer, returning up to 2 years may be OK.