Mammography is a specific type of imaging that uses low-dose x-rays. With the full-field digital mammography we use at all of our Baystate Health locations, the exam machine uses solid-state detectors to convert x-rays into electrical signals. These detectors are like those in digital cameras. The machine uses the electrical signals to produce breast images on a computer screen.
Mammograms can save lives by detecting early breast cancer in women who have no symptoms. The exam can find changes in your breasts two or more years before you or your physician can feel them. Physicians also use the exam to detect and diagnose breast disease in women experiencing symptoms such as a lump, focal pain, or nipple discharge.
Before scheduling your mammogram, discuss your health with your physician. Let her or him know about any changes in your breasts, prior surgeries, hormone use, and any family or personal history of breast cancer. Try to schedule your mammogram about a week after your period. Always tell your physician or our exam technologist if you think you could be pregnant.
- Do not wear deodorant, talcum powder or lotion under your arms or on your breasts. On the mammogram, they can look like calcium spots.
- Describe any breast symptoms or problems (soreness, a lump, or other issue) to the technologist performing your exam.
- If you can, bring with you any prior mammograms for our radiologists to review.
A specially qualified technologist positions your breast on a platform on the mammography machine. To take a clear image of the inside of your breast, the examiner adjusts the machine to gently compress the breast with a paddle. The compression is important because it:
- Evens out the breast thickness so all tissue can be visualized.
- Spreads out the tissue so small abnormalities are more likely to be seen.
- Lowers the amount of x-ray dose.
- Holds the breast still to minimize blurring.
- Increases the sharpness of the picture.
Normally, you will change positions between two images of each breast: a top-to-bottom view and a side view. You must hold still for a few seconds while each picture is taken. The entire exam process requires about 30 minutes. While our technologists are as gentle and quick as possible, some women do experience discomfort to moderate pain during compression.
A mammogram greatly aids your physician and your radiologist's ability to detect small tumors. It is the only proven method to reliably detect certain types of small abnormal growths. These tumors cannot harm you if they are removed early. If left undetected, they can progress and become more difficult to treat. A mammogram can increase your treatment options and your long-term health outlook when cancer is discovered early.
No radiation remains in your body after your exam. We take special care to use the lowest radiation dose possible. Our advanced x-ray system tightly controls the beam. Stray or scatter radiation is minimized. The exam has no side effects.
While there is always a slight chance of cancer from excessive exposure to radiation from any source, the benefit of an accurate diagnosis from mammography far outweighs any potential risk. The radiation dose from a mammogram is about the same as the average person receives from normal living in three months.
Your screening mammogram images are not usually enough to determine the existence of a harmless or harmful disease with certainty. If a finding or spot seems suspicious, your radiologist may recommend further diagnostic studies. Five to 15% of screening mammograms require more testing. Most of these tests confirm the breast is normal. But if there is an abnormal finding, you may need a follow-up exam or biopsy. Most biopsies confirm that no cancer is present.
Mammography is the best screening tool for breast cancer available today, but mammograms do not detect all breast cancers. At Baystate Health, we use state-of-the-art mammographic equipment fully accredited by the American College of Radiology. This allows for high-quality imaging with the lowest possible radiation dose.
Mammograms are interpreted promptly by radiologists with expertise in breast imaging from Baystate Radiology & Imaging. Studies are performed by specialized technologists, all of whom are specifically licensed to perform mammography by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.