What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is a type of medical imaging test used to examine breast tissue for lumps, masses or abnormalities. This test is done using low-dose X-rays to create images of the breast tissue, which are examined to detect any issues in the breast.
Mammograms are an essential part of your wellness routine because they can help detect a problem, even before a lump can be felt. Early detection of any issue is key to improving the chances of successful treatment.
There are two primary types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.
Screening mammograms are the routine imaging procedure for those who are at average risk of developing breast problems and have no signs or symptoms of any issues. Screening mammograms can be done using 2D or 3D X-ray technology.
Screening mammograms can help detect a variety of breast conditions, including:
- Breast cancer: Mammograms can detect breast cancer at an early stage, before any symptoms are present, which improves the chances of successful treatment.
- Calcifications: Tiny mineral deposits in the breast tissue, known as calcifications, can be detected on mammograms. These are usually harmless, but in some cases, they may indicate the presence of breast cancer.
- Cysts: Fluid-filled sacs in the breast tissue, known as cysts, can be detected on mammograms. Most cysts are benign, but in some cases, they may need to be drained or biopsied.
Your first mammogram provides a baseline, or a standard against which future mammograms will be compared to look for changes in your breast tissue over time.
If you have symptoms of any breast problem or there’s an abnormality on your screening mammogram, your doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram.
During a diagnostic mammogram, more images are taken than during a screening mammogram, and they are often taken from different angles. The radiologist may also use other imaging techniques, such as ultrasound, to get a better look at the breast tissue.
Diagnostic mammography can help determine the cause of a breast lump, nipple discharge, breast pain or other symptoms. It can also be used to assess an abnormality detected on a screening mammogram, such as a cyst or calcification.
Mammogram screening recommendations
We support recommendations that women of average risk for breast cancer begin annual screening mammograms at age 40. Baylor Scott & White Health encourages you to discuss the benefits, risks, and limitations of mammograms with your doctor.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women who are at high risk for breast cancer get a breast MRI and a mammogram every year, typically starting at age 30. This includes women who have:
- A family history of breast cancer
- A BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation discovered through genetic testing
- A parent, sibling or child with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, but have not had genetic testing themselves
- Certain genetic syndromes or close relatives who have one of these conditions
High-risk breast screening program
Breast cancer risk factors
There are several factors that can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Some of the most significant include:
- Age: The risk increases as a woman gets older, with most cases occurring in women over the age of 50. Because of this, it’s important to start regular mammograms at age 40 so your doctor can establish a baseline and monitor for changes over time.
- Family history: Women with a close relative (mother, sister or daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer are at higher risk of developing the disease themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a young age or if multiple relatives are affected.
- Personal history: Women who have previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, especially if they were diagnosed at a young age, are at higher risk of developing the disease again.
- Dense breast tissue: Women with dense breast tissue, as seen on a mammogram, are at higher risk.
- Hormonal factors: Women who began menstruating before age 12 or who have gone through menopause after age 55 are at higher risk. Additionally, women who have taken hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for an extended period may have an increased risk.
- Lifestyle factors: Obesity, lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol consumption and smoking have all been associated with an increased risk.
- Genetic mutations: Certain genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, significantly increase a woman's risk.
It's important to note that having one or more of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop the disease. However, if you have any of these risk factors, you may need to be screened more frequently or at an earlier age than those without risk factors. It's important to discuss your individual risk factors and screening schedule with your doctor so you can have peace of mind about your future health.
Preparing for your mammogram
Getting a mammogram can make some people anxious, but knowing what to expect and how to prepare can help you feel confident walking into your mammogram appointment. During the mammogram, a technologist places each breast between two metal plates, then takes pictures from different angles. Once the mammogram is complete, the technologist reviews the images to make sure they are clear and show the entire breast.
The procedure typically takes about 15-30 minutes. While the mammogram itself is brief, you may need to wait for a few minutes before or after your imaging. Some people find that bringing something to read, music to listen to or a craft like knitting helps them pass the time and relieve any stress they may be feeling.
After the mammogram, the images are examined by a radiologist, who sends a report to your doctor. If a suspicious area is identified, further testing, such as additional mammograms, may be recommended.
Steps to make your mammogram go more smoothly
- Schedule your appointment for a time when your breasts are least likely to be tender—usually a week or so after your period.
- Skip deodorant, lotions and powders on the day of your mammogram. Chemicals in these products can interfere with the quality of the images.
- Wear a comfortable two-piece outfit to your screening. You’ll need to undress from the waist up, so choose a top that’s easy to take off and put back on.
- If you’ve previously had a mammogram at another medical facility, bring those images with you or have the other facility send them prior to your appointment. Comparing your old films to your new ones can help the radiologist detect changes in the breast tissue.
- Don’t forget to bring identification, like a driver’s license or other government-issued ID, and proof of insurance.
Mammography and breast imaging locations
Find an imaging center near you.
Additional breast imaging services
While an annual screening mammogram is still the best way to detect breast cancer, there are a number of other breast imaging tests your doctor may order based on your specific needs or symptoms. Baylor Scott & White offers the most advanced technology available to screen for and diagnose breast cancer and other conditions.
- Bone density screening
- Breast MRI
- Breast needle localization
- Breast risk assessment
- Breast ultrasound
- Cyst aspiration
- Image-guided breast biopsy
- Stereotactic breast biopsy
Patient education resources
From common breast conditions to imaging tests, check out the resources available to help you learn more about your health.
Patient education videos
Scroll through the carousel to find the breast imaging topic you need.
- Ultrasound-guided biopsy
- Stereotactic breast biopsy
- Breast MRI
An ultrasound-guided biopsy is a relatively quick, minimally invasive and low-risk procedure to sample a suspicious spot that is visible by ultrasound within the breast.
Stereotactic breast biopsy
This type of needle biopsy samples tissue from an abnormal area in your breast that was found on your mammogram to determine the cause. It is usually recommended when the suspicious spot cannot be felt and is not visible on an ultrasound.
Magnetic resonance imaging is a non-invasive procedure that uses strong magnets and radio waves to create images of breast tissues and blood flow. Breast MRIs sometimes find abnormal areas not seen on mammography or sonogram.
Frequently asked questions
Do you need a doctor's order for a mammogram?
You don’t need a referral for your screening mammogram if you’re over 35. You can schedule one yourself at a radiology center or clinic that offers them.
You may need a doctor’s order if you:
- Are under the age of 35
- Are getting a follow-up to a prior mammogram
- Have symptoms of breast cancer
- Had breast cancer previously
What are the benefits of mammography?
Mammograms are one of the most effective tools in managing your breast health, helping you stay well as you age and empowering you to take quick action if you do receive abnormal results. They can:
- Detect breast cancer up to two years before a lump can be felt, making it easier to treat in its early stages.
- Pinpoint calcifications, which may be an early sign of breast cancer. Early detection can mean less invasive treatment options, such as lumpectomy instead of mastectomy, and a better chance of survival.
- Set a baseline for your breast health. Your healthcare provider can monitor your breast health by comparing your current mammogram to images from past years.
At what age should you get a mammogram?
Baylor Scott White supports the recommendation that women with an average risk of breast cancer should get their first mammogram at age 40. If you have a higher risk—due to a family history or other risk factors—you may need to start getting mammograms earlier. Talk to your doctor about when to start getting mammograms and how often you should get them.
Do mammograms hurt?
Mammograms can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful. During the procedure, your breast is compressed between two plates, which can cause some discomfort. However, the compression only lasts for a few seconds. If you feel pain during a mammogram, speak up so the technician can make adjustments to ensure your comfort.
Is there a risk of radiation exposure with a mammogram?
The amount of radiation exposure during a mammogram is very low, and the benefits of early detection outweigh the small risk of radiation exposure. If you’re concerned about radiation exposure, talk to your healthcare provider.
How long does it take to get mammogram results?
Screening mammogram results are generally ready within a few hours of your exam. Your results will be provided by email, or a paper copy of your report can be mailed to your home.
What if you are called back after a mammogram?
If you are called back after a mammogram, it’s usually because the radiologist saw something on your mammogram that requires further evaluation, such as additional imaging. It does not necessarily mean that you have breast cancer; in most cases, it does not. But it is important to follow up promptly with your healthcare provider and undergo any recommended tests to help ensure the best possible outcome.
What if you are unsure whether you need a mammogram?
It is important to discuss your family history and risks with your provider to receive a personalized plan that is best for you. If you don’t have a primary care provider, find a doctor near you today or call 1.844.BSW.DOCS .
Schedule your mammogram—and challenge a friend
The Power of 2™ challenge
Take control of your health by scheduling a mammogram. It's easier than ever. By getting your mammogram and challenging a friend, you double its impact. That's what we call the Power of 2.