Mammograms are x-ray examinations of the breasts used to screen for breast cancer and to evaluate breast changes that could be cancer. A mammogram in a person without symptoms is called a screening mammogram. If you have symptoms of breast cancer, your providers have concerns you may have cancer, or you need further study of an abnormality seen on a screening mammogram, the test is called a diagnostic mammogram.
A mammogram could find a number of different breast changes, many of which are not cancer. Your radiologist will look for:
- asymmetric areas
- areas where breast tissue looks misshapen
- breast masses
- thickening of the skin
- calcifications, tiny specks of calcium about the size of sand grains, which are usually harmless but could be a sign of cancer
A mammogram can find many changes that actually turn out to be benign (not cancer), such as fluid-filled pockets called cysts, or solid, round masses called fibroadenomas.
It’s important to understand that a mammogram alone rarely gives enough information to diagnose breast cancer. The mammogram is a first step. When your providers suspect cancer, you are likely to need other tests to confirm the diagnosis. Mammograms do not treat cancer, but they are also a first step in deciding what treatments you may need, if any.
Even if the changes on a mammogram are benign, sometimes a biopsy is needed to confirm. Also, mammograms don’t always reveal cancers when they are present.
Mammograms may be offered on film or digitally. Film mammograms, also called analog mammograms, are black and white pictures of the breast on film. With digital mammograms, the radiologist can change the contrast of the image and zoom in to look more carefully at different parts of the breast. The digital type of mammogram is more effective for younger women and women with dense breasts, but it is expensive and not all centers offer it.
For the test, you will need to remove your shirt and bra, and you should not wear deodorant. During the mammogram, your breasts will be compressed between two plates while a camera attached to the plates takes pictures of your breasts from different angles. You will be exposed to a very small amount of radiation.
You may worry about pain while the plates compress your breasts and the camera takes pictures. Some people have some pain, but the pain usually goes away quickly after the test ends. If you are about to have your period and your breasts are tender, you may have more pain than you would at other times of the month.
After the test, a radiologist may read the results right away, or the mammogram may be interpreted at a later time. If the radiologist sees an abnormality or if the images are not clear, you could be called back for another mammogram or other tests.