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What to Know About Getting a Mammogram

nurse prepares woman for a mammogram

mammogram is an important step in taking care of yourself and your breasts. A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray that allows specialists to look for changes in breast tissue that aren’t normal. The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk of breast cancer – most women – should begin having yearly mammograms at age 45, and can change to having mammograms every other year beginning at age 55. 

Women at high risk – because of family history, a breast condition, or another reason – need to begin screening earlier and/or more often. And all women, no matter their age, need to let their doctor know about any changes to their breasts.

Whether you’re a mammogram newbie or a veteran, knowing what to expect may help you navigate the process more smoothly. Talk to your doctor about the breast screening plan that is best for you.

Where to go: Find a center that specializes in breast imaging. The US Food and Drug Administration certifies mammogram facilities that meet high standards of quality and safety. Ask to see the FDA certificate if one isn’t posted near the receptionist’s desk when you arrive. And when you find a facility you like, try to stick with it. Having all your mammograms at the same facility makes it easier for doctors to compare images from one year to the next.

When to schedule: It’s best to schedule your mammogram for the week after your menstrual period. Your breasts won’t be tender or swollen, which means less discomfort during the x-ray and a clearer picture.

What (and what not) to wear: Wear a 2-piece outfit because you will need to remove your top and bra. Don’t use deodorant, antiperspirant, powder, lotion, or ointment on or around your chest that day. These products can appear as white spots on the x-ray.

What to bring: If you’re going to a facility for the first time, bring a list of the places and dates of mammograms, biopsies, or other breast treatments you’ve had before. Tell the technologist about any breast changes you’ve noticed. Always tell the technologist if you’re breastfeeding or think you might be pregnant.

What to expect: The entire procedure takes about 20 minutes. The breast is compressed for a few seconds while an x-ray picture is taken. The breast is repositioned (and compressed again) to take another view. This is then done on the other breast. Flattening the breast tissue, while uncomfortable for some women, provides a clearer view of the breast and lessens the amount of radiation needed to take an x-ray picture.

Getting the results: You should get your results within 30 days. If you don’t, call and ask about them. If doctors find something suspicious, you’ll likely be contacted within a week to take new pictures or get other tests. But that doesn’t mean you have cancer. A suspicious finding may be just dense breast tissue or a cyst. Other times, the image just isn’t clear and needs to be retaken. If this is your first mammogram, your doctor may want to look at an area more closely simply because there is no previous mammogram for comparison.

What you pay: Medicare and almost all private insurance plans cover annual mammograms, with no co-pay or other out-of-pocket costs. Medicaid also covers mammograms. For uninsured or low-income women, free or low-cost programs are available. Some programs are held during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, while others are offered year-round. Call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to find a program near you.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.