Mammograms: How They Work and Why They’re Useful

There’s a good chance you know a female relative who has undergone a mammogram at some point in her life. Having been used for decades, mammograms are an essential tool for the proper diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

What to Expect

In short, a mammography is simply an x-ray of the breast, and involves the use of a special type of x-ray. A woman undergoing breast a cancer screening will stand in front of this machine, and will be asked to place one breast on top of a clear plastic plate. Once in position, the presiding technician will press a second plate against the top of the breast. After an x-ray has been taken, the technician will repeat the process on the side of the breast. Likewise, the opposite breast will be x-rayed in the same areas.

Mammograms are not exactly a pleasant experience; they typically cause at least some degree of discomfort, and might even induce some pain. Fortunately, they are over fairly quick. The amount of pain and discomfort a patient feels depends on the skill of her technician, her breast size and how much pressure needs to be applied to her breasts.

Unfortunately, a technician cannot provide definitive results immediately following a mammography. It generally takes a few weeks for a radiologist to review the x-rays and then report back to the patient or the patient’s doctor.

What Happens Next

If the mammograms come back normal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge women to “continue to get mammograms according to recommended time intervals.” On the other hand, an abnormal mammogram shouldn’t be taken to mean that the patient has cancer. However, it will necessitate additional testing in order to determine if cancerous tumors are present. In many cases, a breast specialist or surgeon will be consulted.

It should be noted that some women undergo digital mammograms, which have the ability to immediately convert x-rays into electronic pictures that doctors can review via computer. This alternative screening method is often used for relatively younger women, who have denser breasts than their older counterparts. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 230,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually.

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