A mammogram takes an X-ray picture of your breast to look for anything unusual, such as lumps or changes in your breasts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a mammogram can sometimes detect breast cancer up to three years before it can be felt by touch.
If anything looks suspicious, your doctor may recommend an additional mammogram or other tests to take a closer look at the abnormality.
A suspicious lump in your breast may be caused by cancer or by fatty cells, cysts, or other conditions.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women between the ages of 50 and 74 have a mammogram every two years.
However, the American Cancer Society recommends that women ages 45 to 54 have a mammogram every year, and every other year starting at age 55, as long as they are in good health.
If you are at high risk for breast cancer due to a strong family history of the disease, or if you carry a genetic mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 and are younger than 40, talk to your doctor about whether you should have mammograms regularly.
Depending on your risk factors, your doctor may also recommend magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other tests.
What Happens in a Mammogram?
In a mammogram, your breast is compressed between two plates and flattened for a few seconds while a technician uses an X-ray machine to take images of the breast.
This will be repeated a few times to get images of different angles of one or both breasts.
A mammogram shouldn't cause pain, but you will feel some pressure. How much discomfort you feel will depend on the size of your breasts, and how much they need to be pressed to get a good X-ray image.
You will have to wait for your doctor to give you the results of the test, which can take a few days.
What Do Mammogram Results Mean?
If your results are normal, your doctor will most likely recommend that you continue to get regular mammograms every year or two, depending on your age and risk factors for breast cancer.
Getting regular mammograms lets your doctor see how your breasts change over time, making it easier to tell if any variations seen on the images are of concern.
If your doctor tells you that your results are abnormal, this does not automatically mean you have breast cancer.
However, you will most likely need to have another mammogram, called a diagnostic mammogram, to take a closer look at the abnormality.
Diagnostic mammograms take longer than screening mammograms, because more X-rays are needed to get detailed pictures of the area of your breast that looks suspicious.
You may also need to undergo other tests and exams to help diagnose your condition, such as:
- Breast ultrasound, which uses sound waves to produce images and may help distinguish between a solid mass and a fluid-filled cyst
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which creates pictures of the interior of your breast using a magnet and radio waves
If a solid mass is found, your doctor may recommend a biopsy (removal of a small piece of tissue that is sent to a lab for analysis).
If you don't already see a breast specialist, your doctor may recommend that you do so since these experts are trained in diagnosing breast problems.