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Breast imaging for early detection of breast cancer

In the treatment of breast cancer, early detection is key. A mammogram is the best way to screen for breast cancer in women. At Allina Health, your mammogram is an important tool in protecting your overall health and wellness. Together, you and your health care provider will decide how often you need a mammogram—and how to follow up if your images show anything out of the ordinary. At every step, your health care team will work with you to create a breast-health plan that meets your specific needs. 

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What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a low-dose digital X-ray of your breast. The exam involves compressing each breast between two panels for a few seconds so the X-ray can get a clear image of your breast tissue. Most people feel pressure and tightness during a mammogram, but it only lasts a few seconds.  

Your mammogram images will be taken digitally. This means images are captured and sent to a computer. The radiologist—a doctor who specializes in interpreting (reading) images such as X-rays—will review the images on a high-resolution computer screen.  

Screening mammogram: this is a mammogram performed annually to check for potential signs of cancer in breast tissue. 

Diagnostic mammogram: this is a mammogram that is performed when there are new breast concerns like a lump, nipple discharge, pain, or an abnormal area seen on a screening mammogram   

2-D versus 3-D mammography: a standard two-dimensional (2-D) mammogram creates flat images of your breast tissue, similar to an X-ray. In a three-dimensional (3-D) mammogram, the camera moves in an arc over the breast, taking a series of images that helps the radiologist see through tissue better. Allina Health recommends 3-D mammograms for all patients, regardless of age, breast density, or risk of breast cancer.

Guidelines for mammogram screening

When to start having mammograms to screen for breast cancer, and how often to have them, is a personal decision. It should be based on your age, your values and your risk for developing breast cancer. 

Allina Health’s mammogram screening guidelines are based on the 2015 American Cancer Society recommendations: 

  • Age 25: Have a risk assessment for breast cancer with your health care provider 

  • Age 40-44: Consider having a mammogram every year, following guidance from your health care provider. He or she will explain the benefits and harms of screening.  Resource: Should you start breast cancer screening at 40 or 45? 

  • Age 45-54: Have a mammogram every year. 

  • Age 55 and older: Have a mammogram every year or transition to having one every 2 years. Continue to have mammograms as long as your health is good. 

If you have a higher than average risk for breast cancer, your health care provider may recommend a different schedule. Together, you can decide what screening schedule is right for you. 

It’s also important to remember that approximately 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history. 

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What to expect during your mammogram

  • Preparing for a mammogram. You may wonder what to wear to a mammogram. Keep in mind that you’ll be asked to undress from the waist up and will be given a hospital gown or robe to wear. Do not wear deodorant, powder, perfume, ointment, cream or lotion on your breasts or underarms. It’s also a good idea to try to schedule your mammogram after your menstrual period when your breasts are less likely to be tender or swollen. 

  • During your mammogram. A mammogram involves compressing your breast between two panels while an X-ray is taken. Compression is important to get a clear image of the breast tissue. A  technologist who specializes in mammography will position your breast on the machine. The panels compress your breast for a few seconds while the technologist takes an X-ray. The exam takes about 20 minutes.  

  • After your mammogram.  A radiologist will interpret (read) your mammogram. He or she will compare the new images with any past mammograms. The radiologist will send written results to you and your health care provider:.  

    • Allina Health account - you will get your results within 1 to 2 days.  (You may see your results before they have been reviewed by your health care provider.) 

    • USPS mail – you will receive your results in 7 to 10 days. 

Mammogram call back: What you should know

Sometimes the standard images taken during a mammogram are not enough to get a final result.  When this happens, the radiologist will ask you to come back for additional images and a possible breast ultrasound. 

A call back does not mean you have cancer or that the mammogram was done incorrectly. It means the technologist needs to take additional images to get a more detailed view of your breast tissue. Most of these additional images are normal (not cancer), but are important to have done. A mammogram call back is not a preventative screening exam and may not be fully covered by your insurance provider. Please call your insurance provider before your appointment to find out exactly what is and is not covered under your plan, and how much you have to pay yourself.

A member of your breast health team will call you to talk about your results and schedule you for any additional breast imaging, if needed. 

Mammogram cost and insurance coverage

Most health insurance plans cover preventative mammograms—with no out-of-pocket costs—every  year for women starting at age 40. This is also true if you use Medicare and Medicaid. Check with your insurance provider before your appointment to find out exactly what is and isn’t covered under your plan, and how much you have to pay yourself. 

Free or low-cost mammograms are often available from health care providers or state and local governments. We work with the American Cancer Society and the Sage Screening Program to offer low-cost mammography to eligible people in Minnesota. The Wisconsin Well Women Program offers services to women in Wisconsin. 

Who performs a mammogram?

Your mammogram involves cooperation between health care providers. A mammography technologist is specially trained to guide you through your mammogram, get you into the right position for the exam, operate the mammography machine and confirm the quality of the images. A radiologist will interpret the images and create a report, which is shared with your health care provider. Your health care provider will talk about the results with you as part of your overall health care.  

Does a mammogram hurt?

You may feel some brief discomfort, but it lasts less than 10 seconds for each image.  Four to six images are taken on average. If you are worried about it being too uncomfortable, share your concerns with the technologist.  

What does breast cancer look like on a mammogram?

A mammogram can show many things in your breast tissue: 

  • Calcifications—calcium deposits that show up as white spots. In most cases, calcifications are benign (not cancer) but they can sometimes be an early sign of breast cancer. 

  • Cysts—fluid-filled sacs that appear as solid masses on a mammogram. Cysts are benign (not cancer). They do not increase your risk of having breast cancer.  

  • Fibroadenomas—solid, usually round lumps within breast tissue that are made up of normal cells. Fibroadenomas are the most common benign (not cancer) breast tumor.. 

  • Cancer cells—abnormal cells that may spread within the breast and sometimes to other parts of the body. Cancerous cells may appear as a white patch with ragged or spiky edges.  

Learn more about breast cancer care and prevention at Allina Health. 

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Source: Allina Health Patient Education Department

First published: 8/1/2018
Last reviewed: 8/30/2021