Get the Facts About Mammograms

Bras for the Cause is passionate about putting an end to breast cancer and providing mammograms for uninsured and underinsured women throughout Iowa.

Mammograms are one of the leading methods for early intervention, finding 85-90% of all breast cancers.

Learn more about mammograms and how they help save lives. Get the facts below.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a screening tool used to detect breast cancer by using low-energy x-rays to examine the breast tissue for any abnormalities. Mammograms are how doctors can better detect changes in breast tissue that often can't be discovered during an ordinary breast exam. 

Mammograms are used for women who have no breast complaints and for women who have a change in the shape or size of a breast, a lump, pain or nipple discharge. While breast changes occur in most women, only a doctor can determine what changes are benign and what changes may be cancer-related. 

What can you find out from a mammogram?

Some of the things your radiologist will examine your x-rays for are differences in each breast, lumps and calcifications. 

  • A growth is often defined as a lump or mass. The size, shape and edges of a lump help doctors determine whether not it is benign or may be cancerous. A benign growth often looks smooth, while breast cancer is often more jagged.
  • A calcification is when calcium deposits are found on the breast tissue, which may or may not be a sign of cancer. If you have signs of calcifications, your doctor will look to see how they are grouped together, how many specks you have, how big they are and what they look like to determine if you should have other tests done. The amount of calcium in your diet doesn't create calcifications in your breasts.

How do you prepare for a mammogram?

It's a good idea to contact the facility where you're having your mammogram done to learn about any special instructions they may have in regards to their process. You can also keep these general guidelines in mind:

  • Are you going to a new facility for your mammogram? Have your x-ray films sent to your new facility.
  • Try to avoid scheduling your mammogram during the week before your period, if you're still menstruating. The week before your period, your breasts are more tender and swollen. By avoiding this week, your mammogram will hurt less and the picture will turn out better.
  • Do you have breast implants? If so, make sure to tell your facility when you make your appointment. 
  • On your appointment day, dress in a shirt and bottoms so you can undress from the waist up and leave your skirt, pants or shorts on.
  • Although it may feel funny, don't apply any deodorant, lotion, perfume or powders under your arms or on your breasts on the day of your appointment because this can cast shadows on your film.

How often should you get a mammogram?

According to the National Cancer Institute, women 40 years and older should get a mammogram every 1 to 2 years. If you've had breast cancer or breast problems or have a family history of breast cancer, you may need to start regular mammograms before age 40 and/or get them more often. Discuss your situation with your doctor. 

What's the most effective way of detecting breast cancer?

  • To help detect breast cancer as early as possible, it's important to get a clinical breast exam by your doctor, along with a mammogram. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the chances of a successful treatment. 
  • You want to get both a mammogram and clinical breast exam because some cancers can't be found by a mammogram, but may be found in a clinical breast exam, and vice versa. 
  • A breast self-exam (BSE) should not take the place of having routine mammograms and clinical breast exams.

What's the best method of detecting breast cancer as early as possible?

A high-quality mammogram plus a clinical breast exam (an exam done by your doctor) is the most effective way to detect breast cancer early. Finding breast cancer early greatly improves a woman's chances for successful treatment. 

Like any test, mammograms have both benefits and limitations. For example, some cancers can't be found by a mammogram, but they may be found in a clinical breast exam.

Checking your own breasts for lumps or other changes is called a breast self-exam (BSE). Studies so far have not shown that BSE alone helps reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer. BSE should not take the place of routine clinical breast exams and mammograms.

If you choose to do BSE, remember that breast changes can occur because of pregnancy, aging, menopause, menstrual cycles, or from taking birth control pills or other hormones. It is normal for breasts to feel a little lumpy and uneven. Also, it is common for breasts to be swollen and tender right before or during a menstrual period. If you notice any unusual changes in your breasts, contact your doctor.

How often should I get a mammogram?

The National Cancer Institute recommends:

  • Women 40 years and older should get a mammogram every 1 to 2 years. 
  • Women who have had breast cancer or other breast problems or who have a family history of breast cancer might need to start getting mammograms before age 40, or they might need to get them more often. Talk to your doctor about when to start and how often you should have a mammogram.

What can mammograms show?

The radiologist will look at your x-rays for breast changes that do not look normal and for differences in each breast. He or she will compare your past mammograms with your most recent one to check for changes. The doctor will also look for lumps and calcifications. 

  • Lump or mass. The size, shape, and edges of a lump sometimes can give doctors information about whether or not it may be cancer. On a mammogram, a growth that is benign often looks smooth and round with a clear, defined edge. Breast cancer often has a jagged outline and an irregular shape.
  • Calcification. A calcification is a deposit of the mineral calcium in the breast tissue. Calcifications appear as small white spots on a mammogram. There are two types:
    • Macrocalcifications are large calcium deposits often caused by aging. These usually are not a sign of cancer.
    • Microcalcifications are tiny specks of calcium that may be found in an area of rapidly dividing cells.

If calcifications are grouped together in a certain way, it may be a sign of cancer. Depending on how many calcium specks you have, how big they are, and what they look like, your doctor may suggest that you have other tests. Calcium in the diet does not create calcium deposits, or calcifications, in the breast.