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.

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Medically reviewed in January 2022

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. “Breast cancer in the U.S. is very common,” says Samantha Bunting, DO, an OBGYN affiliated with Plantation General Hospital and Westside Regional Hospital in Plantation, Florida. “Mammography is our primary screening tool for detecting breast cancer, and we know that if we catch it early, it’s highly curable.”

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. Medicare 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?
“I often tell patients not to apply deodorant or moisturizers to the upper body area, as this may interfere with some of the imaging,” says Dr. Bunting. Skip the lotion, powder or perfume around your breasts and upper arms, as well. Leave necklaces at home.

As for your wardrobe? “I also tell patients to wear a two-piece outfit so that they can remove their top for the imaging,” Bunting adds. Instead of one-piece dresses or jumpsuits, opt for a shirt with pants, shorts or a skirt.

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. You’ll probably cover your family medical history, personal medical history and previous medications or procedures. 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.

“Luckily it only lasts for about 10 seconds for each image,” says Bunting. “So, once it’s done, the pain usually just goes away.” She has never had a patient complain about pain well 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?
All told, the process of getting a mammogram typically lasts between 10 and 40 minutes depending on the patient’s breast tissue, breast mass and breast size. Regardless of these factors, your breasts are compressed only briefly. Between travel, paperwork, answering provider questions, undressing and the imaging itself, consider blocking about two hours out of your schedule for the whole visit (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. “Usually you’ll get results back within one week of the test,” says Bunting. 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, to enable your HCP to 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.

“It’s important for women to know that a callback doesn’t necessarily mean that she has cancer,” says Bunting. 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.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “National Center for Health Statistics Fast Stats: Mammography,” “National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP),” “What Is a Mammogram?” “How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?”
National Cancer Institute. “SEER: Cancer Stat Facts: Female Breast Cancer.”
Cancer.net. “Breast Cancer: Statistics.”
American Cancer Society. “Survival Rates for Breast Cancer,” “Tips for Getting a Mammogram,” “Medicare Coverage for Cancer Prevention and Early Detection,” “Getting Called Back After a Mammogram,” “Breast Density and Your Mammogram Report.”
National Institute of Health. “Factsheet: Breast Cancer.”
UpToDate.com: “Patient education: Breast cancer screening (Beyond the Basics).”
Mayo Clinic. “Mammogram.”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “4 Mammography Myths,” “Direct-to-Patient Mammogram Results: It’s the Law.”
Kaiser Family Foundation. “Coverage of Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention Services.”
Healthcare.gov. “Preventive care benefits for women.”
Susan G. Komen Foundation. “Mammography.”
Medicare.gov. “Is my test, item, or service covered? Mammograms.”
National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. “National Mammography Program.”
Planned Parenthood. “What Happens During a Mammogram?”
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Mammography and Other Screening Tests for Breast Problems.

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