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8 Things to Know Before You Get a Mammogram

8 Things to Know Before You Get a Mammogram

How much will it cost? Does it hurt? Here’s everything you should know before you go.

We read the clever slogans. We wear the pink ribbons. We donate to the fundraisers. And yet, despite our booming breast cancer awareness, a sizeable proportion of American women skip or delay their regular mammograms.

This is not a good thing. “Screening is very important because breast cancer mortality has decreased substantially with it,” says Adrian M. Roznowski, MD, an OBGYN at Plantation General Hospital and medical director at Advanced Women's OB/GYN Institute of Broward in Plantation, Florida. Thanks in part to mammograms, he explains, the average five-year breast cancer survival rate is now 90 percent—significantly higher than it was in the 1970s.

Still, some women simply brush off their screening mammograms, while others worry about the cost or the potential for pain. Many just aren’t sure how to book a screening, or what to expect when they’re at the imaging center. With that in mind, here are your most common questions about getting a mammogram, from making the appointment to getting your results.

When is the best time to schedule a mammogram?
Book an appointment for when your breasts are less likely to be sore or swollen. You may feel less discomfort during the scan, and it can help the technician get better images. For pre-menopausal women, the week following your period is generally a good time. Consider avoiding the week before you menstruate and the week you actually have your period; your breasts may be more sensitive at those times.

While you’re on the phone with the imaging center, let the imaging center know if you any have physical limitations that must be taken into account—if you can’t raise your arms or have breathing problems, for instance. The staff can make plans to accommodate your needs or point you to another facility that can be of service.

Will my insurance cover it?
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010, most women over 40 with private health insurance or on state Medicaid programs are covered for screening mammograms every 1 to 2 years. Check with your carrier regarding newer 3D mammograms, however, as some plans may not pay for them yet.

Medicare will cover a baseline mammogram from ages 35 to 39, and then an annual screening mammogram every year after that. There is no cost for a screening mammogram if your HCP accepts the test. They will also pay for a 3D mammogram as long as it’s performed at the same time as a 2D mammogram.

For women without insurance, low- or no-cost screenings may be available through reputable health organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Coverage for diagnostic mammograms—which are different from screening mammograms and occur after an abnormality has been discovered—varies by plan. It may involve a co-pay, or you may have to meet your deductible first. Before making an appointment, reach out to your insurance company for details. Medicare will cover 80 percent of the cost of “medically necessary” diagnostic mammograms after you meet the Part B deductible.

How should I prepare the day of the mammogram?
On the morning of your screening, don’t apply antiperspirants or deodorants to your underarms, since bits of either may appear on your mammogram. Skip the lotion, powder or perfume around your breasts and upper arms, as well. Leave necklaces at home.

As for your wardrobe, remember that you’ll have to remove any items from the waist up. Instead of one-piece dresses or jumpsuits, opt for a shirt with pants, shorts or a skirt. That way, you don’t have to take off your whole outfit. For extra comfort, says Dr. Roznowski, It’s always good to wear loose-fitting cotton clothing.”

What can I expect during the appointment?
At the appointment, before the actual imaging starts, you’ll likely answer a number of questions to give your healthcare providers (HCPs) some medical background. “We talk about a patient’s family history, her personal history, her previous medications or procedures,” says Roznowski. If you’ve discovered any changes in your breasts since your last mammogram, be sure to bring them up. The same thing goes if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or have breast implants.

When you’re ready for the mammogram itself, you’ll head to the exam room and remove your clothing. The technician may apply nipple or scar markers on your breasts, though that varies by facility. One breast will then be placed on small platform attached to the mammogram machine, where it will be pressed by a plastic plate for imaging. Once complete, the technician will adjust the machine for another image from a different angle, and then repeat the same process for your other breast. If it’s a diagnostic mammogram, they’ll focus largely on the abnormal area(s) in question.

Will it hurt?
There’s no sugarcoating it: Mammograms can be uncomfortable. Your breasts are being squeezed by a machine, and many women don’t find the sensation particularly pleasant.

The good news is the compression itself lasts only for a moment or two, and the ensuing discomfort is almost always temporary. “In 10 years of practicing medicine,” says Roznowski, “I have never received a call back when someone is in intense pain after a mammogram.”

If you’re worried, speak with your HCP about whether you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever—such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen—an hour or so before the screening. And during the mammogram, let your technician know if the pain is too much to bear; they can adjust as needed.

How long will it take?
 “A woman can expect to have a procedure that lasts anywhere between 10 and 30 or 40 minutes,” says Roznowski. It depends, he adds, “on the patient’s type of breast tissue, their breast mass and the size of their breasts.” Regardless of these factors, your breasts are compressed only briefly. Between travel, paperwork, answering provider questions, undressing and the imaging itself, he recommends blocking about two hours out of your schedule for the whole process (though it may vary, of course).

When should I get my results?
Once you’ve completed your mammogram, a radiologist who is specially trained to interpret medical x-rays, scans and ultrasounds will take a look at the images, keeping an eye out for the possibility of cancer or other problems. This doctor will then write up a report and send it to your HCP.  

A written summary of mammogram results must be delivered within 30 days, according to U.S. law, although typically, it’s faster than that. It depends,” says Roznowski. “In our office the results come back within two to three business days.” Sometimes, if a radiologist is on hand, you can learn your results during your appointment. If the radiologist finds something to suggest cancer is present, they must make an effort to provide results as soon as possible.

Reach out to your HCP or imaging center if you don’t hear back after 10 to 14 days. Never presume that your results are normal. Someone must tell you that’s the case.

What are the next steps?
If your mammogram is normal, continue to be screened as directed by your doctor. Between screenings, speak with your HCP if you notice any changes in the look or feel of your breasts.

Abnormal results will likely entail additional testing, so your HCP can figure out whether cancer is present. This can involve a diagnostic mammogram, a breast ultrasound or a breast MRI. If cancer is suspected, a breast biopsy will be needed for confirmation.

“Being called back in for additional imaging results in anxiety for quite a few patients,” says Roznowski. It’s important to remember that callbacks are common, and the vast majority of those patients brought in for further tests do not have cancer. The technician may simply need clearer images. Or, if you have dense breast tissue, it can make mammograms tougher to assess. Either way, the follow-up will provide some answers.  Typically, you’ll get imaging results during the appointment, but biopsy results can take a few days.

Medically reviewed in June 2019

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