Womens Health

Mammography and Mammograms


What Is A Mammogram?

Mammography is a type of breast exam that uses x-ray imaging in order to detect any breast abnormalities or potential symptoms of breast cancer. There are two types of mammograms that are typically performed: the diagnostic mammogram and the mammogram for screening.

Learn The Difference Between Screening and Diagnostic Mammograms

A breast mammogram is performed on an out patient basis and the procedure usually lasts about 30 minutes. A trained technician will position the breasts between two plates in a mammography unit. The breasts are then slowly compressed, and low radiation x-ray images will be taken from horizontal and vertical angles of each breast.

The patient may be asked to adjust slightly as each image is being taken. A radiologist will later review the images to detect any breast cancer signs and symptoms, and send a written report of the results to your doctor. Make sure you receive the results of your mammogram and do not assume that results are normal if you have not heard back from your doctor or mammography center.


Screening vs. Diagnostic Mammograms

The screening mammography is typically used in women who show no clinical signs of breast cancer or breast abnormalities, and is performed for the purposes of early detection as a method of breast cancer screening. This typically requires that two x-ray images be taken of each breast from two different angles.

The diagnostic mammogramis performed if breast cancer symptoms or other suspicious signs have already been detected by other forms of breast exams such as a clinical breast examination or a self breast examination. These can include symptoms such as a breast lump, breast pain, unusual skin appearance or a thickening of the nipples, and unusual nipple discharge.

Diagnostic mammograms are also conducted if potential signs of breast cancer have resulted in an abnormal mammogram during screening mammography. In this case, diagnostic mammograms can provide additional images from different angles of the breast and may also focus on a particular area at a higher magnification to provide further information for diagnosis.


What Can A Mammogram Detect?

A radiologist will analyze any suspicious signs of breast cancer that appear on the x-ray film and may indicate complications.

Calcium deposits may appear on the x-ray and may indicate signs of breast cancer as well as benign conditions such as fibroadenoma. It is recommended that women undergoing a mammography exam not wear deodorant or lotion under their arms as these may produce images that are similar to calcium deposits on the x-ray.

Dense areas that have developed since a patient’s last mammogram, or dense tissue areas that only appear in one breast, may indicate a potential sign of breast cancer. Breast lumps may also be detected, and any tumor that has invaded the breast will appear as a distorted image on the x-ray film.


When To Get A Mammogram

The best time to undergo a mammography breast exam is one week after your menstrual period, as this will ensure that your breasts are not tender, which can cause pain or discomfort during a mammogram procedure.

It is recommended that all women over the age of 40, whether at high risk of breast cancer or at average risk of breast cancer, undergo screening mammograms every one to two years in order to detect early signs of breast cancer stages.

It is generally advised that women between the ages of 20 and 39 who are at high risk of developing cancer, including those whose family members have had breast cancer, also receive yearly mammograms.

Women between the ages of 20-39 who are at average risk are generally not advised to undergo mammogram screenings. However, other forms of breast exam screenings should be performed, such as routine clinical breast examinations and self breast examinations.

It is best to talk to your doctor about breast examinations and mammograms in order to receive recommendations on breast exam procedures based on your personal medical history.


Risks and Benefits of Mammography

Mammograms allow a physician to detect small tumors, which would otherwise remain unnoticed. Detecting tumors at the early stages of breast cancer allows for more options in the way of breast cancer treatments, and increases the chances of successful recovery.

However, because mammography uses x-ray radiation, there are some risks associated with mammogram procedures. Exposure to radiation always carries the risk of cancer with it. However, many experts assert that radiation levels produced by x-ray technology are extremely low, and the benefits of early detection, especially for women over the age of 40, outweigh the risks of exposure.

A patient must inform her doctor or specialist if there are any chances of her being pregnant prior to receiving mammography exams. The mammography procedure has sparked some controversy amongst those who question whether individuals treated after mammogram analysis would have actually developed breast cancer in the long run, and whether exposure to x-rays is necessary in the screening process.


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