Why mammograms are an essential part of a woman’s wellness routine

Women's Health

by Amy Balis, MD

Oct 5, 2023

Mammograms are an essential tool to care for yourself. However, even with widespread awareness about the importance of this simple screening, many women still have questions about what to expect, and how to best care for their breast health and why mammograms are a vital part of a woman’s wellness routine.

When you know the facts about mammograms, it gives you the confidence that you’re making the right choice for you. These are some of the common mammogram and breast health questions my patients ask me.

What are mammograms looking for?

A screening mammogram looks for signs of breast cancer before you even have symptoms. These signs can range from tiny calcium deposits and subtle asymmetries to large areas of distortion (an irregular area of breast tissue) or abnormal masses.

While monthly self-exams are a good idea to stay in tune with your body, they don’t always catch breast cancer, especially when it’s just starting to develop. Yearly mammograms help find cancer cells when they are still small enough that you can’t feel them.

Why should I have a mammogram every year?

Annual mammograms allow your healthcare provider to find subtle changes in your breast tissue. Yearly mammograms help us detect breast cancer early, when it should be the easiest to treat. Baylor Scott & White Health supports the American College of Radiology's  recommendation that all women get an annual mammogram starting at age 40.

How do I prepare for a mammogram?

A little preparation can make your mammogram screening as smooth and comfortable as possible. To get ready for your mammogram, it’s helpful to:

  • Schedule your mammogram at the time in your cycle when your breasts are not as tender (if you still have a monthly cycle).
  • Eat, drink and take any medications as normal on the day of your appointment.
  • Avoid wearing deodorant or skin lotions on your chest or underarms, as they can sometimes show up as an artifact on your mammogram.
  • Wear a two-piece outfit, as you will be asked to undress from the waist up.

What should I expect during a mammogram?

Routine mammograms require two different views of each breast, so typically four pictures taken. However, factors such as breast size or the presence of breast implants may mean you need up to eight images. Your technologist will help you be calm and relaxed during the exam so they can position your breasts most effectively.

Many women want to know if the mammogram will hurt. Everyone has a different sensitivity to pain. While the pressure from the compression can be uncomfortable for some patients, it only lasts a few seconds and is typically tolerable.

More questions to ask your doctor about mammograms

Have more questions about your mammogram? Talking with your doctor can help put your mind at ease. At your next visit, use these questions to get the conversation started:

  • What is breast density on my mammogram? Breast tissue is categorized into four ranges from completely fatty to very dense. Based on your breast density, you may qualify for additional screening, such as adding ultrasound or breast MRI to your screening routine.
  • Do I need a 3D mammogram? 3D mammograms provide very detailed images through the breast that a 2D mammogram cannot provide. You will not notice any difference in positioning or comfort compared to 2D, but it will give your radiologist a more thorough picture of your breast
  • Will my breast size or breast implants affect my mammogram? You may need extra images based on size or breast implants. However, there isn’t a difference in the ability of a mammogram to catch signs of breast cancer in small breasts versus large breasts. The technologists are highly trained to position any shape or size for a mammogram.
  • Does my family history matter for mammograms? It’s a common misconception that you won’t get breast cancer if no one in your family has been diagnosed with it. In reality, more than 75% of breast cancers are not hereditary. This is why mammograms are recommended for all women—regardless of family history. If you have a family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor about starting screenings before you turn 40.

What if I don’t have a primary care doctor?

While you should get yearly checkups, you can still get a mammogram even if you currently don’t have a doctor. Most insurance providers are required to cover the cost of annual screening mammograms starting at age 40. You can schedule it yourself—and online scheduling makes it even easier.

You also can find a provider near you who will work closely with you to care for your breast health.

About the Author

Dr. Balis is a breast imager/diagnostic radiologist and medical director of the Women's Imaging Center at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Irving.

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