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What to Expect at a Mammogram

Last updated: October 12, 2023

Quick: Think of all your favorite yearly happenings. OK, so maybe an annual mammogram doesn’t top your list, but this important test offers a quick, easy, and highly effective way to screen for breast cancer.

For many women, mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer.

Here, we answer some frequently asked mammogram questions.

What is a Mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. Doctors use a mammogram to look for early signs of breast cancer. Regular mammograms can find breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before it can be felt.

When Should I Start Screening?

Experts have varying recommendations. Here’s what the American Cancer Society recommends:

  • Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so.
  • Women ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older may switch to mammograms every two years, or they can continue yearly screening if they wish.
  • Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.

2D? 3D? How Do I Choose?

While 2D (two-dimensional) mammograms were the standard breast cancer exam for years, 3D mammograms now provide a more effective screening. A 3D mammogram combines multiple X-rays of the breast to create the 3D image, providing a clearer image of the breast tissue.

“3D mammography is the better screening choice for all women,” says Miranda Parson, a Mammography Technologist at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah. “It can offer an increased cancer detection rate. In particular, women with dense breast tissue will likely benefit from 3D exams because tumors are more difficult to detect in dense tissue.”

In March 2023, a Food and Drug Administration rule change began requiring health care facilities to notify patients if they have dense breast tissue, which slightly increases a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer. It’s estimated half of all women have dense breast tissue.

In Wisconsin, a bill moving through the State Senate (Senate Bill 121) would require insurance companies to cover enhanced testing, such as 3D mammograms, for those with dense breasts.

Most insurance companies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, cover 3D mammogram for the initial exam. Contact your insurance company before your mammogram if you’re unsure whether you have 3D mammography coverage. Most mammography centers, including all ThedaCare locations, now use 3D mammography.

Does it Hurt?

Parson says she often tells patients that a mammogram may feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t feel unbearable.

“If the compression becomes too much, tell your technologist and he or she can adjust it,” she says. “In the end, the imaging only lasts about seven seconds, so it’s over quickly.”

Breasts can be tender the week before and during menstruation. To reduce the level of discomfort, you can consider scheduling your mammogram one to two weeks after your period starts.

How Do I Prepare?

Skip the deodorant on the day of your screening, but don’t worry if you forget. Most centers have wipes for removing deodorant. You’ll also want to wear a two-piece outfit, as you only need to remove clothing above your waist.

Before your mammogram, you’ll provide the technologist a full medical history of your breasts.

“Any procedures or previous health concerns that are breast-related are important for us to know,” Parson says. “For example, if you’ve had surgery in that area or have breast implants, that will adjust how we will do the imaging.”

Tell your technologist if you’re nervous. They’re there to help guide you through the process. And remember, most screening mammograms take about 20 minutes or less.

Prioritize Your Health

If you’re still feeling uncertain, take some inspiration from Becca Pettit, one of two honorary survivors from this year’s American Cancer Society’s Making Strides of the Fox Valley breast cancer walk.

Doctors discovered Becca’s stage 2 breast cancer through a routine mammogram. Like many women, Becca leads a busy life, but she says she’s thankful she put her health first.

“We tend to minimize what’s going on in our own lives because we’re busy taking care of other people,” she says. “I want to tell women they are valuable; they are needed; they are loved; they are cared for. You are needed in this world, and you can’t be in this world if you put off your health care and taking care of yourself.”

If you’re due for a mammogram, schedule early for the best availability of dates, times, and locations. To schedule online, log in to MyThedaCare and select ‘Schedule an Appointment,’ and then ‘Screening Mammogram.’

Tags: 3D mammogram breast cancer dense breast tissue mammograms

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