Mammograms: what they are, why they are important and what to expect

Early detection and mammography can reduce the risk of death caused by breast cancer.  
Written by: Shawna Masters and Amanda Dunn
Media contact: Yvonne Taunton

Untitleddesign48Early detection and mammography can reduce the risk of death caused by breast cancer. Each year, more than 40,000 women die from breast cancer, making it the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 35-60. However, annual mammography can reduce this risk — it is the only scientifically proven test to reduce breast cancer deaths.

The incidence of breast cancer continues to rise with age, making annual mammography extremely important. Radiologists and gynecologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine encourage women to prioritize their breast health and awareness, not only this month but year-round.

Mammogram: What is it?

A mammogram is a special, low-dose X-ray that images the breasts to check for cancer. A standard screening mammogram is composed of two views of each breast. To get an optimal image, the breast is placed in compression for a few seconds while the image is obtained. The compression produces a sharper image that spreads out overlapping tissue and decreases the amount of radiation used. Screening mammography is by far the most effective test to detect signs of breast cancer.

A mammogram can detect most cancers when they are small, allowing for earlier diagnosis that requires less aggressive treatment and reduces risk of death. 

Common misconceptions

According to Stefanie Zalasin, M.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Radiology, there are many common misconceptions about mammograms. For example, some people think they do not need one if they have no family history of breast cancer and that patients do not need to get mammograms annually.

“Both of these are false. It is important to note that 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it at all,” Zalasin said. “It is not only important to have regular mammograms, but it is also important that women continue to return each year.”

According to Zalasin, skipping a year of mammography can delay breast cancer detection, often requiring more extensive treatment.

Procedure expectations

When a patient is referred for a mammogram at UAB, the request goes to the access center. The access center will call the patient, ask screening questions and schedule the mammogram, typically within two days.

After the patient checks in, nurses will take their history, take them to a changing room and provide a gown to wear. In the mammography room, the patient stands in front of the machine and the breast is placed on the plate. A second plate compresses the breast from above and an image is taken. The compression releases immediately after the X-ray exposure. Then the breast is imaged from the side, and the process is repeated for the other breast.

“On the day of the mammogram, the patient is instructed to not wear deodorant, lotion or powder, as this can show up as abnormal findings on the image,” Zalasin said. “While images are taken, the patient is asked to hold their breath and remain still to avoid blurred images.”

The patient is in the mammography room for approximately 10 minutes. The entire process typically takes 30-45 minutes.

Taking action

Breast cancer awareness is the first step. The second and most important step is to take action, and to do that, experts recommend that people visit their OB/GYN providers regularly.

“Premenopausal breast cancer is much more worrisome than postmenopausal, as it is not as common,” said Todd Jenkins, M.D., professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and director of the Division of Women’s Reproductive Healthcare. “The most common age to be diagnosed with breast cancer is 62, so it is important to start considering regular mammograms at age 40.”

According to Jenkins, it is especially important to visit a gynecologist if  patients notice something abnormal with their breasts. Common irregularities include lumps, masses, redness and discharge.

“Breast awareness is so important, and women should take action if something seems abnormal,” Jenkins said. “UAB OB/GYN encourages patients to stay aware of their health in all areas, including breast health. We remain in close contact with other departments, such as the Department of Radiology, allowing patients to be connected quickly to other specialists. This is key for patients with breast cancer concerns.”

OB/GYN providers and breast imaging radiologists at UAB can advise patients on their next or first mammogram. Schedule an appointment with UAB Medicine or with a breast health specialist at the UAB O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center to get started.