A mammogram is an X-ray examination of the breast. It is performed to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, often before any signs or symptoms of the disease are present.

Mammography allows doctors to detect small tumors that are easier to treat than larger, more developed tumors. And it can also detect small abnormal growths in the milk ducts of the breast, called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Early removal of these growths will remove the risk of future harm. Mammograms are an effective way to detect cancer early and can aid in the goal of successfully treating and beating the disease.

Screening Mammograms

Screening mammograms include two image views of each breast, typically when the patient has no breast complaints. For the most part, we start screening around the age of 40 (or earlier depending on family history). Screening mammograms typically happen once a year after the age of 40, although there are times when that recommendation may be altered. This can be discussed with your doctor.

Diagnostic Mammograms

Diagnostic mammograms are mammograms that include additional x-ray images of the breast after the screening mammogram has identified a problem. The problem could be a density or calcifications that are seen on the initial mammogram. The radiologist then requests additional films to help him/her decide whether the abnormality is worrisome enough to have a biopsy (tissue sampling). Sometimes the extra images prove to be a false alarm and nothing else needs to be done. There are other reasons for a diagnostic mammogram and this can be discussed with your physician.

Both screening and diagnostic mammography can help diagnose breast diseases, lumps, cysts and benign and malignant tumors.

Preparing For The Procedure

Patients should not schedule a mammogram the week before they have their period, as the breasts are usually tender at this time.

The doctor may ask the patient not to wear deodorant or lotion under the arms or on the breasts on the day of the mammogram. Otherwise, there is no special preparation needed for the procedure.

The Mammogram Procedure

During a mammogram, the breast is placed on a small platform and compressed with a paddle while it is exposed to a very low dose of radiation. Compression helps even out the thickness of the breast so that all breast tissue can be visualized, and it also holds the breast still to minimize blurring of the image caused by patient movement. Images of the breast tissue are produced and then displayed on a computer screen for the doctor to view.

The patient may experience pressure on the breast from the compression, which may be uncomfortable if the breasts are sensitive. Most patients tolerate the mammogram procedure with no problem.

Risks Of A Mammogram

A mammogram is considered to be a safe procedure for most women, including those with breast implants. Patients should advise their doctors if they are pregnant or have any pre-existing medical conditions.

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