Getting ready for my mammogram

What is a mammogram and why should I have one?

A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. It can find breast cancer that is too small for you, your doctor, or nurse to feel.

If you are 50 years old or older, having a mammogram at least every 2 years could save your life. If you are in your 40s, talk with your doctor about whether it is a good idea for you to have a mammogram.

Your doctor can help you decide when you should start having mammograms and how often you should have them.

How is a mammogram done?

Mammograms are quick and easy. You simply stand in front of an x-ray machine. The woman who takes the pictures places your breast between two plastic plates. The plates press your breast and make it flat. This may be uncomfortable, but the pressures only lasts for a few seconds and it helps get a clear picture.

You will have pictures taken of each breast. The whole process -getting undressed, having the pictures taken, and getting dressed again - only takes about twenty minutes.

What does it mean to have dense breasts?

Having dense breasts is normal-about half of all women have them. It does not mean you are more likely to get breast cancer. It just means that it's a little harder to get good x-ray pictures of your breasts. Dense breasts have a lot of thick tissue which looks white on regular radiology film. Cancerous tissue looks white, too. At most large hospitals, including MGH, NWH and BWH, mammograms are now done in 3-D. 3-D pictures show more detail and help to find even the smallest changes in your breasts. 3-D mammograms help the doctor see the difference between normal dense breasts and tissue that could mean you have cancer.

How do I know whether I have dense breasts?

After your next mammogram, you will receive a letter telling you about your breast density. There are four levels of breast density: 1) very dense, 2) a mix of dense and fatty tissue, 3) areas of dense tissue but mostly fatty tissue, and 4) almost entirely fatty breasts. There is nothing you can do to change breast density. Younger women often have dense breasts. Levels of breast density also run in families.

How do I get ready for my mammogram?

Here are some general rules:

  • Make your mammogram appointment for one week after your period. Your breasts hurt less after your period. This will make it easier to have the mammogram.
  • Wear a shirt with shorts, pants, or a skirt. That way you can undress from the waist up and leave your shorts, pants or skirt on when you get your mammogram.
  • Do not wear any deodorant, perfume, lotion or powder under your arms or on your breasts on the day you go to have your mammogram. These things can make a shadow show up on the x-ray.
  • Do not bring children with you. For safety reasons, children are not allowed in the exam room.

When will I get the results?

You should get your results within 30 days. The results may come in a letter or an email or a phone call from the breast center or your doctor's office. If you do not get your results within 30 days, call your doctor's office.

This document is not a substitute for your care team's medical advice and should not be relied upon for treatment for specific medical conditions. 

Source: This content of this article is produced by MGH/PCOI. MGH patients can find this in the Resources section of Patient Gateway, under Partners Care Advice (PCOI), along with patient handout about many other health & wellness topics.

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