Cancer can often seem like a bolt from the blue…seemingly out of nowhere. Early detection can vastly improve survival figures and save women from a disease that can be costly, painful, debilitating and potentially fatal. About 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer during their lives. Most cases of breast cancer occur in women who are past menopause. By age 40 years, mammography should be a regular part of your health care.
What to Expect
The day you have the test done, you should not wear powders, lotions or deodorants. This is because most of these products have substances that can show on the X-ray films. They can make the films hard for the radiologist to read. To get ready for the test, you will need to undress from the waist up and put on a gown. You will be asked to stand or sit in front of the X-ray machine. Two smooth, flat plastic or glass plates will be placed around one of your breasts. You will briefly feel pressure on your breast. The plates will flatten your breast as much as possible so that the most tissue can be viewed with the least radiation. After the first X-ray, the plates may be removed so that the breast can be X-rayed from one or more other positions. The test then is done on the other breast.
The pressure of the plates may make the breast ache. This discomfort will go away shortly. If you menstruate, you may want to have the test done in the week right after your period. The breasts often are less tender at this time.
If you have breast implants, tell your health care provider. You also should mention your implants to the person who is giving the test. Breast implants can make it more difficult to see certain parts of breast tissue. There is some risk that the implant may burst during the test. Therefore, extra care should be taken when the breast is compressed.
Are There Any Risks?
Mammography exposes a woman to a very low dose of X-rays. the dose is much lower than the natural level of radiation received from the environment during a 1-year period. In the past, there was some concern about the amount of radiation a woman would be exposed to during the test. Improved equipment and techniques now result in very low doses. Thus, risk is very low, even with repeated tests. If needed, mammography can be done during pregnancy.
Some types of cancer can’t be seen on a mammogram. Even lumps that can be felt may not show up. the combination of your mammography, regular breast exams by your health care provider, and being aware of the changes in your breast may give the best results. If you feel a lump, see your health care provider.
What If The Test Is Positive?
Most lumps found in the breast are benign-not cancer. To confirm the results of mammography, other imaging tests, such as ultrasonography and magnetic resonance imaging, also may be useful. You may also need to have the test again if the images on the first test were not clear. Other tests can give more information about the type of lump. They include the following:
- Needle aspiration, in which a needle is inserted into the lump to find out whether it is fluid filled or solid. A sample of fluid or tissue may be drawn out for study under a microscope.
- Biopsy, a surgical procedure in which a small incision is made to remove the entire growth or a sample for study under a microscope.
In some cases, special breast X-rays also may be used along with these tests. This allows your health care provider to get a better view of the area that is being studied.
Combined with regular checkups and breast self-exams, mammography is a good way to find cancer at an early and more curable stage. It has large benefits and small risks. For women aged 40 and older, mammography should be part of your routine health care.
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