If You’re Called Back After a Mammogram

Written By:Stacy Simon
tech or nurse helping a patient get in position for a mammogram

Women getting their routine mammogram will often receive a letter within 30 days saying the results were normal. However, getting called back after a screening mammogram is fairly common and can be scary. Getting that call does not mean you have breast cancer, but that the doctors have found something suspicious. 

If you get called back, it's usually within a week to take new pictures or get other tests. Fewer than 1 in 10 women called back for more tests are found to have cancer.

What else could it be?

A suspicious finding may be just dense breast tissue, a cyst. Other times, the image just isn’t clear and needs to be retaken. Or, if this is your first mammogram, your doctor may want to look at an area more closely simply because there is no previous mammogram to compare it with.

What will happen at the follow-up appointment?

You are likely to have another mammogram called a diagnostic mammogram. (Your previous mammogram was called a screening mammogram.) A diagnostic mammogram is still an x-ray of your breasts, but it’s done for a different reason. Often, more pictures are taken during a diagnostic mammogram so that any areas of concern can be carefully studied. A radiologist is on hand to advise the technologist (the person who operates the mammogram machine) to be sure they have all the images that are needed.

You may also have an ultrasound test, which uses sound waves to create a computer image of the tissues inside your breasts. For this test, you will lie on a table while a technologist applies some gel and places a transducer – a small instrument that looks like a microphone – on your skin. You might feel some pressure as the transducer is moved across the breast, but it should not be painful. This test may be used to look more closely at a change that was seen on a mammogram.

In addition, some women will have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). A breast MRI uses radio waves and strong magnets to make detailed pictures of the inside of the breast.  For a breast MRI, you will lie face down inside a narrow tube for up to an hour. The test can be uncomfortable for people who don’t like small, enclosed spaces, but should not be painful.

You can expect to learn the results of your tests during the visit. You are likely to be told 1 of 3 things about the suspicious area:

  • It turned out to be nothing to worry about and you can return to your regular mammogram schedule.
  • It is probably nothing to worry about, but you should have your next mammogram sooner than normal – usually in 6 months – to make sure it doesn’t change over time.
  • It could be cancer and a biopsy is needed to tell for sure.

You will also get a letter with a summary of the findings, which will tell you if you need follow-up tests or when you should schedule your next mammogram.

What if I need a biopsy?

Even if you need a breast biopsy, it still doesn’t mean you have cancer. Not all biopsy results confirm a cancer diagnosis, but a biopsy is the only way to find out. During the procedure, a small amount of tissue is removed from the suspicious area and looked at under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.

There are several different types of biopsies – some use a needle, and some use an incision (cut in the skin). The type you have depends on things like how suspicious the breast change looks, how big it is, where it is in the breast, how many areas of change there are, other medical problems you might have, and your personal preferences.

The tissue sample will be sent to a lab where a specialist, called a pathologist, will look at it. It will take a few days, maybe even more than a week, for you to find out the results. Once you get them, it’s important to learn whether the results are final or whether you need another biopsy. You may also decide that you want to get a second opinion.

If the results are negative or benign, that means no cancer was found. Be sure to ask the doctor whether you need any additional follow-up and when you should have your next screening mammogram. If the biopsy shows that you do have cancer, your doctor may refer you to a breast surgeon or other breast specialist.

What if it’s cancer?

If you do have cancer and you are referred to a breast specialist, use these tips to make your appointment as useful as possible:

  • Make a list of questions to ask at the appointment. Download a list from the American Cancer Society or call us at 1-800-227-2345.
  • Bring a family member or friend with you. They can serve as an extra pair of ears, help you remember things later, and give you support.
  • Ask if you can record important conversations.
  • Take notes. If someone uses a word you don’t know, ask them to spell it and explain it.
  • Ask the doctors or nurses to explain anything you don’t understand.

How can I stay calm while waiting?

Waiting for appointments and the results of tests can be frightening. Many women experience strong emotions including disbelief, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness during this time. Some things to remember:

  • It’s normal to have these feelings.
  • Not all breast changes are cancer, and most are not life-threatening.
  • Talking with a loved one or a counselor about your feelings may help.
  • Talking with other women who have been through a breast biopsy may help.
  • The American Cancer Society is available at 1-800-227-2345 around the clock to answer your questions and provide support.

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