5 Things You Need To Know About Mammograms

Considering a mammogram? Want to know what they’re all about? Or, just wondering what the big deal is anyways? Here’s what you need to know!

What’s the big idea?

I think I know what a mammogram is, but I’m not 100% sure…

Long story short: a mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. The goal of this kind of screening is to get a closer look at the breast to see if their are any tumours — cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). During mammography, you stand in front of the machine while your breast is put between 2 plates. They are usually plastic and they’re called compression plates. These plates help help flatten the breast so that less radiation is used and more of the breast tissues can be seen (find out more about the process here).

There are two types of mammography that are usually performed:

Screening Mammography:

This is a regular scan done to look for breast cancer in a woman who is showing no signs of breast cancer but meet the screening guidelines in their province OR meet the criteria for being high risk for breast cancer.

Diagnostic Mammography:

This is done to get a closer look at a breast problem that has been reported, like a lump found during self-examination.

How old do I have to be?

how old do you have to be to have a mammogram
I’ve never had a mammogram done before. When should I start?

The idea of getting a mammogram or having to get one can be intimidating. After all, you’re checking to make sure you don’t have cancer. So it’s natural to have a lot of questions about when you should be getting your first mammogram and how often.

According to the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care (CTFPHC)’s most recent breast cancer screening guidelines, it’s not recommended that women under the age of 49 participate in regular breast cancer screening.

Say, what?!

This is because there is no mortality benefit to screening for women in this age category. However, this is specific to women who are average risk of breast cancer. It doesn’t include women who are high risk due to familial or genetic factors. Still, it’s important to be breast aware. Even if you don’t need regular screening, consult a doctor right away if you notice any abnormal breast changes.

Does breast size affect anything?

does breast size effect a mammogram
@Sharp HealthCare
My breasts are big. How will this affect my mammogram experience and/or my risk for breast cancer?

To put it simply: no, it doesn’t. Just like breast cancer risk, breast size (big or small) doesn’t affect the mammogram process. What’s more important is breast density. Breasts that have more connective and milk duct tissues can be more difficult to screen using mammogram technology (this is usually more common in women under 40). So other screening methods (like ultrasound) are often used in addition to a mammogram.

In terms of pain, some women think that breast size will affect discomfort during their mammogram experience. But the truth is, mammograms aren’t supposed to hurt. So there’s no need to fear! If you do feel pain, you should tell your technician right away.

That being said, here are some tips to help make your experience as comfortable as possible:

Avoid your menstrual cycle.

Your breasts are usually tender at this time. So it’s best to avoid mammography 7-10 days before your period starts.

Avoid caffeine.

Not just the day of — it’s best to avoid caffeine in the 5-7 days leading up to your mammogram.

Consider over-the-counter pain medication.

Ask your doctor about mild pain medication like Ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

How should I prepare?

how do you prepare for a mammogram
@The New York Times
Is there anything I should be aware of before going into my first mammogram?

Yes, there is! Along with the tips mentioned above for minimizing discomfort, there are also some staple dos + donts when it comes to preparing for your mammogram.

No deodorant or antiperspirant.

Don’t worry about BO during your mammogram. You’re actually not supposed to wear deodorant because it can interfere with imaging.

No body lotions or powders.

It’s important to avoid using any lotions or powders on or near the underarms as well.

Wear loose clothing.

You want to be comfortable during your mammogram – especially your first one. You should wear clothing that can easily be removed from the waist up.

Remove jewellery.

Don’t worry, not all jewellery has to go. But necklaces and other bling that can get in the way during the test should come off.

Are mammograms safe?

Are mammograms safe
If mammograms use radiation, won’t they cause cancer?

Some women think that mammograms can actually cause cancer. While mammography does use radiation, the dosage is extremely low. And according to the Canadian Cancer Society, x-ray exposure does not increase the risk of cancer. Mammograms can help with the early detection of breast cancer. It’s safe to say that the benefits outweigh the risks on this one in post-menopausal women and those that are high risk.

Obviously, mammogram technology isn’t absolutely perfect.

There have been instances of false-negatives (mammograms show no cancer, even though there is) and false-positives (mammograms showing sings of cancer, even where there isn’t any). Mammograms are an important diagnostic tool, but it’s alsoimportant to also be aware of our own bodies so that we can speak up when something doesn’t feel right.

Find out more about how you can become more breast aware!

You may also be interested in

Life, Interrupted: A New Film About Breast Cancer Stories
Breast Cancer Risk: What you need to know
Reduce breast cancer risk
7 Ways To Take Your Breast Health Seriously According To A Family Physician
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