What to expect in a mammogram

One of the three tools needed to improve the probability that a woman will discover any breast changes that require treatment is a mammogram. And, almost every woman has heard the stories about the pain or discomfort associated with this particular test. However, because of the importance of detection of breast cancer in the early stages to improve the success rate of treatment they continue to be a necessary process.

A mammogram is a screening tool and is recommended that every woman over the age of 40 has one on an annual basis. However, because many women have heard these horror stories or don’t know what to expect during an examination they may delay scheduling.

A mammogram machine will take a special x-ray film of the breast tissue that is designed to investigate any changes in density and detect any lumps. Images are taken from two or three different angles to attempt to get as much tissue as possible. These should be a regular part of a woman’s health screening and may also be performed to examine a lump or growth which was detected by either breast self-examination or during a clinical examination by your physician. (1)

There are no special precautions that must be taken prior to your scheduled mammogram appointment. Some physicians may recommend that you do not drink anything with caffeine for 48 hours prior to the exam to decrease any hormonal changes in the breast tissue. It is also important not to wear any lotion, deodorant, powders or cream on your chest before the procedure because they will conflict with the imaging studies and may require that you undergo more testing. (2)

The mammogram x-ray will be taken directly up against skin tissue. This means that you will be asked to undress from the waist up and wear no underwear or clothing. The procedure is done using a large machine which a woman will stand in front of. In other words, the x-ray is done while you are standing. The technician will manipulate the breast tissue to lay against a flat plate and then another clear or polyurethane plate will be placed on top of the breast tissue and brought down with a slight amount of pressure. This helps to flatten the breast tissue within a comfortable range and allow better penetration by the x-ray machine.

If you have discovered a lump on your own or your physician has discovered a lump be sure to discuss these findings or any other symptoms which are a problem with the technologists who is performing the examination. The technologists may also want any history of prior surgeries, hormone use, family or personal history of breast cancer, or any other pertinent history which will allow her to get the best pictures possible. (3)

These technicians are well experienced in this procedure and will help a woman to get the x-ray done with the least amount of discomfort. Schedule your mammogram for the week after your menstrual period to ensure that your breasts are the least swollen and least tender, which will significantly reduce any discomfort you may feel. By reducing the amount of fatty foods and caffeine in the three to four days prior to the mammogram you will also reduce any tenderness or swelling.

Following the test you may have a slight skin irritation or tenderness. Most physicians will recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever if you feel that you need it. If you have a low tolerance for pain, speak with your physician about taking to ibuprofen approximately 1 hour prior to the examination. While most women do not require any medication for discomfort or pain following the examination, everyone is different. Don’t be afraid to investigate pain relief that you might need.
(1) University of Maryland Medical Center: The Breast Center
(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Understanding Mammograms
(3) Columbia Health: Mammogram

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