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What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a safe, low-dose X-ray examination of the breast. It is currently the most effective method of detecting breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages. Beaumont recommends all women 40 and over have an annual screening mammogram. 
There are two types of mammograms – screening and diagnostic. While they are performed the same way, the reason you need the test differs. 

  • Screening mammograms are what women without symptoms get annually to check their breast health. Women should begin getting an annual screening mammogram starting at age 40. Since September 2010, the Affordable Care Act has required all new health insurance plans to cover screening mammograms every 1-2 years with no out-of-pocket costs (co-payments or co-insurance) for women ages 40 and older.
  • Diagnostic mammograms are used when a woman is experiencing symptoms such as a lump, pain, nipple thickening or discharge, or a change in breast size or shape. A diagnostic mammogram is also used to evaluate abnormalities detected on a screening mammogram. Check with your insurance company regarding coverage for a diagnostic mammogram. Unlike a screening mammogram, there may be out-of-pocket cost associated with the test. 

In addition to standard 2-D digital mammography, 3-D mammograms (tomosynthesis) are also used for both screening and diagnostic mammograms. While all women can benefit from 3-D mammography, it is especially beneficial for women who:

  • are getting their first, baseline mammogram
  • have dense breasts
  • have a strong family history of breast cancer or are considered high risk 

Why are annual screening mammograms important? 

Today's high-quality screening mammography is the most effective tool available to physicians in detecting breast cancer before lumps can be felt or symptoms of cancer appear. Early detection of breast cancer not only helps provide a woman with more options, but also increases the possibility of a favorable prognosis.

Beaumont recommends all women 40 and older get an annual screening mammogram. Women with one or more of the factors that increase risk should talk with their doctors about when to begin getting mammograms. Sometimes the starting age will be younger; sometimes the time between mammograms will be shorter.

Is there a risk of radiation exposure from having regular mammograms?

You may want to ask your physician about the amount of radiation used during the procedure and the risks related to your situation. It is a good idea to keep record of your history of radiation exposure, such as previous scans and other types of X-rays, so that you can inform your physician. Risks associated with radiation exposure may be related to the total number of X-ray examinations and/or treatments over a long period of time. Special care is taken to ensure that the lowest possible amount of radiation exposure occurs when you have a mammogram.

What can I expect from my mammogram?

The first step in scheduling your mammogram is getting a script or order from your primary care physician, OB-GYN, or regular provider. You will not be able to schedule your mammogram until you have received this script. 

When you arrive, you will check in and be taken to an area to undress from the waist up. It’s helpful to wear a two-piece outfit that day to make it easier. You will be given a gown to wear while you wait. Don’t wear deodorant or perfume before the test. 

When you are called into the mammogram room, you’ll see a large machine and a technician. For each breast, you will undo the gown on that side, raise your arm up over the machine, and lean into it. The technician will position your breast in the machine between two flat plates and then compress your breast as you hold still. You will be asked to hold your breath for a moment while the X-ray is taken, and then the machine will release your breast.

In a screening mammogram, the whole procedure will probably take 10 to 15 minutes. In a diagnostic mammogram, the procedure may take longer. More X-rays of different angles will be taken, and the technician may zoom in on areas of interest.

While your breast is compressed, there can be some discomfort and possibly mild pain – the tissue simply isn’t accustomed to being stretched and compressed. But the discomfort lasts only seconds and goes away as soon as the mammography machine releases the breast.

What do my mammogram results mean?

If your mammogram results are negative, it means there were no abnormal findings. Essentially, your scan was “normal” or shows no signs of breast cancer.  

If your mammogram does show something abnormal, you will need additional test to determine the cause. Most abnormal findings on a mammogram are not breast cancer. Other conditions that are sometimes found with mammography include:

  • Calcifications: Tiny mineral deposits within the breast tissue. There are two categories of calcifications:
    • Macrocalcifications: Coarse calcium deposits that usually indicate degenerative changes in the breasts, such as:
      • aging of the breast arteries
      • old injuries
      • inflammations
    • Microcalcifications: Tiny (less than 1/50 of an inch) specks of calcium. When many microcalcifications are seen in one area, they are referred to as a cluster.
  • Masses, which may occur with or without associated calcifications, and may be due to different causes, including:
    • Cyst: A noncancerous collection of fluid in the breast.
    • Benign breast conditions: Masses can be monitored with periodic mammography, but others may require immediate or delayed biopsy.

Where should I go for my mammogram?

The American Cancer Society recommends that women use a facility, such as Beaumont, that specializes in mammograms and performs many mammograms daily. As a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence in Michigan, Beaumont offers patients leading edge mammography services, and has reached the American College of Radiology (SCR) Gold Standard for Mammography, meaning our facilities have demonstrated a strong commitment to image quality and safety.

With 17 mammography locations across the region, you’ll have access to the most advanced technology available including 3-D mammography (tomosynthesis), ABUS whole breast ultrasound, breast MRI and more. 

Beaumont Cancer Institute offers:

  • several comprehensive breast care centers 
  • fully accredited diagnostic radiology program performing thousands of digitized mammograms each year
  • the first computer-aided diagnosis for all screening and mammography, and the first MRI-guided breast biopsies in Michigan
  • a high-risk evaluation clinic with access to advanced breast MRI technology, clinical breast exams, annual imaging, genetic and risk-
  • reduction counseling services, and the latest diagnostic protocols