What to expect during your first mammogram

Getting your first mammogram can be stressful. After all, it’s your first one, so you don’t know exactly what to expect.

Rest assured: even women getting their second or third mammogram may have concerns.

But by learning how to prepare for and what to expect from this important cancer screening exam, you can eliminate some of the guesswork. And, that can make your experience less nerve-wracking.

Here’s what you should know.

Mammograms save lives

Don’t put off your mammogram. For most women, a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer as early as possible.

That’s because a mammogram uses low-dose x-rays to create an image of the breast tissue. It detects lumps that are too small to be felt.

MD Anderson recommends that women at average risk get a mammogram every year beginning at age 40. Women with a higher risk of breast cancer should speak with their doctor to find out when they should start having mammograms.

Prepare for your mammogram

Make your experience more comfortable with these tips:

  • If you haven’t started menopause, schedule your mammogram for the week after your menstrual period. Your breasts usually are less tender then.
  • Schedule your appointment early in the day since you can’t wear deodorant, powder, lotion or ointment around the chest area. If you apply any of these items, they may look like a breast problem on the x-ray.
  • Wear a two-piece outfit so you only have to remove your top. The person doing your mammogram will give you a gown to wear.
  • Bring the name, address and phone number of the doctor who ordered the mammogram. Afterwards, the facility will send your doctor a report.

Mammograms take about 30 minutes

The entire mammogram procedure takes about 30 minutes. Each of your breasts will be compressed for only 20 to 30 seconds.

While compression can be uncomfortable, it’s also very important. It allows the breast tissue to spread and flatten. This ensures a clear view of the breast and reduces the amount of radiation needed to make an image.

Most unusual findings aren’t cancer

A radiologist will review your x-rays and send your doctor a report.

Beware: many women get suspicious findings after their first mammogram. But, that’s often because their doctor doesn’t have previous exam results for comparison. This is why it’s so important to save your mammogram results and take them to your doctor to review after each mammogram.

Keep in mind that suspicious findings usually aren’t cancer. They may just be cysts, dense tissue or the result of an unclear image.

If you have a suspicious finding, you may need another mammogram to further evaluate the problem. In some cases, your doctor also may recommend a breast ultrasound. No matter what your mammogram results are, remember: getting regular mammograms is an important step to helping you live a long and healthy life.

Therese B. Bevers is medical editor of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Focused on Health.

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