A mammogram is an x-ray of the breasts using low-dose radiation. The key role of mammography is identifying breast cancer early in its development when it is very small. This is often a year or two before it is large enough to be felt by you or your healthcare provider as a lump. A screening mammogram is used to help find breast cancer early in women who have no symptoms. With a screening mammogram, a radiologist is not only looking for breast cancer shadows, but is also looking for calcifications, cysts and fibroadenomas (solid lumps of normal breast cells). A diagnostic mammogram may be done as a problem-solving examination in patients who have abnormal physical findings or an abnormal screening mammogram. Diagnostic mammograms may also be used for patients with breast implants.
Mammography detects about 2 to 3 times as many early breast cancers as a physical examination and is considered the “gold standard” in breast cancer detection. It is the best method to screen for the presence of a small undetectable lump or a group of micro-calcifications, which may be the only sign of breast cancer. While mammography is the best screening exam available today, about 1 in 10 cancers will not be identified until they can be felt as lumps. That is why breast self-examination and regular exams by your healthcare provider remain integral components of breast cancer detection. One of the newest techniques approved to aid in early detection of cancer in screening mammograms is CAD (computer-aided detection). The CAD technology basically works like a second pair of eyes, reviewing a mammogram film after the radiologist has already made an initial interpretation. With CAD, the X-ray image taken in a mammogram is created into a digital image and the computer then scans the image and marks any suspicious looking areas that may not have been noticed by the radiologist. Those areas can then be studied in more detail by a radiologist who can decide if a biopsy or further evaluation is needed.


A screening mammogram usually consists of 2 views of each breast. During the procedure, each breast is placed on a platform in the mammogram machine, pressed firmly between 2 plates and an x-ray is taken. This takes only a few minutes and will be performed by a trained technologist. Most women say the compression is uncomfortable, but not painful. Once completed, a qualified radiologist will analyze the x-rays, looking for specific abnormalities or changes related to cancer. The findings will be reported to your healthcare provider who will, in turn, forward the results to you.


To prepare for a mammogram, dress comfortably. A two-piece outfit is usually the most convenient because you will need to undress above the waist. You should not use any type of powders, deodorants, ointments or creams prior to exam because they can affect the quality of the mammogram. If possible, you should not schedule your mammogram just before or during your menstrual period, especially if you have breast pain at that time. If you have breast implants, please inform the technologist before the exam because a different procedure will be used. The complete screening mammogram procedure takes about 20 minutes.


  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, aside from skin cancer.
  • Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death, after lung cancer in women.
  • One in every eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
  • This year, more than 200,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in our country.

Currently, two-thirds of breast cancers are diagnosed at a localized stage, for which the five-year survival rate is 97%. This high rate of early detection can be attributed to utilization of mammography screening. A better understanding of breast cancer symptoms within our population has also helped to increase detection.


Now that you have learned a little about breast cancer, here are some guidelines to follow for good preventive health developed by the American Cancer Society and the American College of Radiology. They may be modified by your healthcare provider to meet your particular needs. Over 90% of breast cancers can be detected when all 3 methods outlined below are used together in a planned program.

  • Breast Self-Exam (BSE) – More recently the focus of BSE has been moving from the monthly routine self-exam to becoming more-self aware of your breast changes and seeking help if any abnormalities are noticed. BSE represents a structured way in which the breast can be examined effectively. You should know how your breasts normally feel and look.
  • Beginning in their 20’s, women should learn the benefits of BSE. You can be instructed on the proper techniques of BSE at the time of your routine health examination. You should also know that there are limitations to BSE. Report any breast changes that you notice to your healthcare provider immediately.
  • Clinical breast exam – Women in their 20’s and 30’s should have a breast exam by a healthcare provider every 3 years. Women age 40 and older should have a clinical exam annually.
  • Mammography - At age 40, women should begin to have annual mammograms. They may be recommended at an earlier age if there is a strong family history of breast cancer or other risk factors.