What can I expect when I have a mammogram?

Courtney Garlick, MD
Diagnostic Radiology
What you can expect when you have a mammogram can vary from doctor to doctor. A first mammogram screening typically lasts about 30 minutes. You'll slip on a gown and stand in front of the machine while the breast is placed on a plate and another plate presses firmly from above. The plates hold the breast as the x-ray is taken. The process then repeats for the other breast. These steps are then repeated for side views of each breast.

For first-timers, some find the compression of the breasts uncomfortable. However, it is a low level of pain, if any at all during the screening, and each compression lasts only a few seconds. Acquiring the results generally takes up to five days.

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Before a mammogram, you will be escorted to the dressing room by one of the breast center staff. You will be instructed to undress from the waist up. The staff will provide you a gown to wear. Please have the opening in the front of the body. You will be given a wipe to remove any deodorant, powder or lotion from the breast and underarm area. The staff will provide you with deodorant if you wish to reapply after the exam. You will be instructed to take a seat in the gowned waiting area.
Aurora Health Care
A mammogram (an x-ray of the inside of the breast, which can be done either as a routine screening test or to pinpoint the cause of breast cancer symptoms) can be done in a doctor's office, hospital, or clinic. It should be done by qualified people who are certified to perform the test and read the results. During the test, each breast is compressed between two plates and an x-ray picture is taken. Two views are taken -- top to bottom and side to side. You'll feel pressure, and your breasts may ache for a short time.

The compression is done to get the best pictures with the least amount of radiation. It can hurt for a short time, but it allows the best chance for finding a problem. Tell the technologist if you have breast implants as special pictures may be needed.
In order to get a good image during mammography (the procedure used to generate a mammogram, which is an x-ray image of the breast), your breast must be flattened or compressed. This may be uncomfortable, but it will not harm your breast in any way and is extremely important for obtaining a clear image. Compression of the breast is also beneficial because it results in a lower dose of radiation.

In a standard examination, two images of each breast are taken -- one from the top (called a cranio-caudal, or CC, view) and one from the side (called a mediolateral oblique, or MLO, view). This ensures that the images display as much breast tissue as possible.
Here's what you can expect when getting a mammogram:
  • To have a mammogram you must undress above the waist. The facility will give you a wrap to wear.
  • A technologist will be there to position your breasts for the mammogram. Most technologists are women. You and the technologist are the only ones in the room during the mammogram.
  • To get a high-quality mammogram picture with excellent image quality, it is necessary to flatten the breast slightly. The technologist places the breast on the mammogram machine's lower plate, which is made of metal and has a drawer to hold the x-ray film or the camera to produce a digital image. The upper plate, made of plastic, is lowered to compress the breast for a few seconds while the technician takes a picture.
  • The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes. The actual breast compression only lasts a few seconds.
  • You will feel some discomfort when your breasts are compressed, and for some women compression can be painful. Try not to schedule a mammogram when your breasts are likely to be tender, as they may be just before or during your period.
  • All mammogram facilities are now required to send your results to you within 30 days. Generally, you will be contacted within 5 working days if there is a problem with the mammogram.
  • Only 2 to 4 mammograms of every 1,000 lead to a diagnosis of cancer. About 10% of women who have a mammogram will require more tests, and the majority will only need an additional mammogram. Don't panic if this happens to you. Only 8% to 10% of those women will need a biopsy, and most (80%) of those biopsies will not be cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.