A mammogram is a type of x-ray that is conducted on your breasts to detect any changes. Mammography can help with the early detection of breast cancer before you notice any signs or symptoms.
For 96% of women, a mammogram breast screening will have normal results. For around 4% of women, the x-ray results may not be clear or could show an abnormality. If this is the case, then you may be called back for more tests or to have the mammogram retaken.
What Can a Mammogram Show?
Primarily, a mammogram is to detect the early stages of breast cancer, this may not necessarily be a lump, but could be an area of calcium, also called calcification. Calcification in the breast does not necessarily mean it will lead to cancer, but medical professionals can examine the changes of calcification within the breast to look for patterns which may be related to cancer.
A mammogram can also show a condition called ductal carcinoma in situ, which is where some of the cells surrounding the breast ducts have become abnormal and may have started to turn into cancer cells. If not correctly treated, then these cells may become an invasive cancer.
Who Is Offered a Mammogram?
For women aged between 50 and 70, it is recommended that you have a mammogram every three years. If you are younger than 50, you won't be offered a mammogram as the screening works best after the menopause. After the menopause, there is a change in the breast tissue which makes reading mammograms much more successful and it is much easier for doctors to identify changes.
If you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, then you may be offered screening at an earlier age with both a mammogram and an MRI scan.
What Are the Benefits and Negatives of a Mammogram?
It will be your choice to decide whether breast screening is right for you and if you're unsure, you can talk to a medical professional about your concerns.
Mammograms have been shown to be successful, by picking up 80% of breast cancers in women over 50, the screening also usually detects cancers early which makes them simpler and easier to treat. Many people will take comfort in the results of a mammogram when they show there are no issues.
As with any screening, it will not be 100% effective and some abnormalities may not appear. If an abnormality does show up, it can cause stress and worry for the individual which can take its toll on their health. As a mammogram is an x-ray, you will be exposed to a small amount of radiation, and you may find the procedure uncomfortable.
The effectiveness of a mammogram is also reduced if you have breast implants. A mammogram can still be conducted, but tell your radiographer about the implants. A mammogram should not cause any damage to your implants.
What's Involved in the Procedure?
Upon arrival, you will be asked by a medical professional about any symptoms you have experienced or any history of breast disease and cancer within your family. They will then talk you through the process to make sure you are comfortable.
To conduct the x-ray, the screening will be carried out by a radiographer. You will be asked to remove your top and bra and place your breast between two x-ray plates. The plates are pressed firmly to flatten the breast for a clearer picture which may be uncomfortable. Once flattened, the radiographer will take two views of each breast, one from above and one from the side.
Once the x-rays are taken you can redress and leave; you may feel slightly tender for several days afterwards. You will be contacted if any abnormalities are detected.
Is Breast Screening Safe?
Mammograms are considered safe as they only use a small amount of radiation, much less than a standard x-ray and are found to bring significant benefits to the early detection and treatment of cancer.
If abnormalities are detected, then this may lead to further treatment for individuals which may have been unnecessary once they have found that the abnormalities were harmless. This could create unnecessary stress for the individual.
As well as mammograms, it is important to regularly check your breasts, so that you can detect any changes to your breasts and potentially catch cancer early. Examine your breasts regularly, paying attention to any changes in how they feel as well as their size and shape. It is also important to check the nipples too, to keep an eye on any changes or if there is discharge.
If you notice any changes, but your mammogram hasn't shown any abnormalities, then you should still see a doctor if you feel there is anything unusual.
Updated: May 28, 2020 CET