Your first mammogram: What to expect
Breast cancer screening exams help find breast cancer at an early stage. When found early, the chances for successfully treating the disease are greatest.
Along with regular exams, practice awareness. This means you should stay familiar with your breasts. That way you’ll notice changes, like a new lump or mass. Then, report them to your doctor without delay.
The screening recommendations below apply to average-risk women. Women at increased risk may need different test or may need to be tested more often.
- Age 25 to 39: Get a clinical breast exam every one to three years.
- Age 40 and older: Get a mammogram and clinical breast exam every year.
A mammogram is an X-ray of your breast. Mammograms can detect tumors that are too small to be felt by you or your health care provider. Detecting breast cancer as early as possible is very important. The earlier it is detected and treated, the better.
A 3D mammogram, also called breast tomosynthesis, makes it easier for doctors to catch breast cancer early. It also helps catch more cancers and can reduce the likelihood of a false positive because the picture is more detailed. All of the screening mammography equipment at MD Anderson has 3D mammography capability.
- Related: Your first mammogram: What to expect
Prior to menopause, you may want to schedule your mammogram for the week following your menstrual period, since your breasts may be less tender. The following tips can help you have a smoother experience during your exam, and ensure you get the most accurate results possible:
- Do not wear deodorant, powder, cream or ointment. These substances can show up on the X-ray as a breast problem.
- Wear a two-piece outfit so you only have to remove your top.
- Bring the name, address and phone number of the health care provider who referred you for the mammogram so the facility can arrange for the report to be sent to them.
- If you have had a mammogram before, bring your previous results with you. It's important that your new radiologist be able to look at your previous mammogram results to detect changes.
What to expect from a mammogram
Your mammogram will be performed by a technician specially trained in mammographic positioning and techniques. The mammographer uses a special, low dose X-ray machine to create an image of the breast tissue. The machine has platforms or paddles used to compress the breast. It can detect lumps that are too small to be felt.
Compression of the breast is sometimes uncomfortable. However, it is very important as it spreads and flattens the breast tissue. This ensures a clear view of the breast tissue and reduces the amount of radiation needed to make an image.
Your breast will be compressed for 20 to 30 seconds. A radiologist will review your X-rays and send your referring health care provider a report of the findings.
Your mammogram images will be sent to a radiologist who will inspect them carefully to see if there is any reason for concern or more testing.
It is not uncommon for your first mammogram to have suspicious findings, since there are no previous mammograms that can be used for comparison. Most suspicious findings are nothing more than cysts or spots of dense tissue. Occasionally suspicious findings are the result of an unclear image.
An additional mammogram to evaluate a trouble spot is called a diagnostic mammogram. It will focus on the problem area. In some cases, a breast ultrasound may be recommended.
Clinical breast exam
During a clinical breast exam, a doctor, nurse or another health professional will examine your breasts visually and manually for lumps, skin abnormalities and abnormalities in your nipples. They will use their hands to press on your breasts, nipples and the areas around your breasts, including your armpits.
Be prepared to answer questions about any changes you have noticed in your breasts, as well as your reproductive history. This will include the age of your first period, the date of your last period, and your pregnancy history.
MD Anderson does not recommend that women practice regular breast self-exams. Studies show that regular self-exams are not the best way to detect breast cancer early. Instead, MD Anderson recommends women be aware of how their breasts look and feel and see a doctor if they notice changes or abnormalities.
Most breast cancers are discovered by women during regular daily activities like bathing, shaving, or scratching. Knowing how your breasts look and feel, and being alert for the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, like a lump, can help you detect the disease early when it's easiest to treat.
Breast cancer symptoms
Breast cancer symptoms vary from person to person and there is no exact definition of what a lump or mass feels like. And many breast cancers are found by mammograms before any symptoms appear. The best thing to do is to be familiar with your breasts so you know what “normal” feels and looks like. If you notice any changes, tell your doctor.
Breast cancer risk factors
Breast cancer risk factors are things that may put you at increased risk for breast cancer. They can include a family history of the disease or certain genetic mutations. This doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get cancer. But, you may need to start screening at an earlier age, get additional tests, or be tested more often. If you suspect you may be at increased risk, print and share MD Anderson’s breast cancer screening chart with your doctor.
Breast cancer recurrence
If you’ve had breast cancer, you need a different plan to check for cancer recurrence. Print the MD Anderson survivorship chart below that best describes your cancer and share it with your doctor. Your doctor can use this chart to create a tailored plan for you.
Reduce your risk for breast cancer
There are several healthy lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your risk of breast cancer and breast cancer recurrence.
- Stay lean after menopause. Keep a healthy weight and a low amount of body fat. Eating a healthy diet can help.
- Get active and sit less. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. Do strength-training exercises at least two days a week.
- Avoid alcohol. If you drink, limit yourself to one drink per day if you are a woman.
- Choose to breastfeed. Try to breastfeed exclusively for six months after giving birth, and continue even when other foods are introduced.
- Manage hormones naturally. If you are going through menopause and trying to control the symptoms, try non-hormonal methods before turning to hormone replacement therapy.
The screening plans on this page apply to women expected to live for at least 10 years. They’re not for women who have a health condition that may make it hard to diagnose or treat breast cancer. Your doctor can help you decide if you should continue screening after age 75.
Schedule Your Mammogram
Complete our online form to schedule a mammogram in the Texas Medical Center, League City, The Woodlands or West Houston Diagnostic Imaging. We will call you within one business day to confirm.
Saturday appointments available at most locations.
To schedule by phone, call 1-844-240-7092.
Dense breast tissue: What it is, and what to do if you have it
4 questions about breast calcifications, answered
7 reasons you might skip your mammogram, but shouldn’t
Have tattoos? Read this before your next mammogram
Daughter’s persistence shows importance of not delaying cancer screenings
COVID-19 vaccines and mammograms: 7 things to know
7 things your doctor wants you to know about mammograms
Does it matter where you get your mammogram?
Due to our response to COVID-19, all blood donations at MD Anderson
Blood Donor Center locations are being held by appointment only.