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A mammogram is an x-ray examination of the breast. It is used to detect and diagnose breast disease in women who either have breast problems such as a lump, pain, or nipple discharge, as well as for women who have no breast complaints.
Mammography cannot prove that an abnormal area is cancer, but if it raises a significant suspicion of cancer, tissue will be removed for a biopsy. Tissue may be removed by needle or open surgical biopsy and examined under a microscope to determine if it is cancer.
Mammography has been used for about 40 years, and in the past 15 years technical advancements have greatly improved both the technique and results. Today, dedicated equipment, used only for breast x-rays, produces studies that are high in quality but low in radiation dose. Radiation risks are considered to be negligible.
According to the National Cancer Institute:
The development of digital mammography provides electronic images of the breasts that can be enhanced by computer technology, stored on computers, and even transmitted electronically in situations where remote access to the mammogram is required.
X-rays of the breast are different than those used than for other parts of the body. The breast x-ray does not penetrate tissue as easily as the x-ray used for routine x-rays of other parts of the body. The breast is compressed by the mammogram equipment to spread the tissue apart. This allows for a lower dose of radiation. Compression of the breast may cause temporary discomfort, but is necessary to produce a good mammogram. The compression only lasts for a few seconds for each image of the breast.
A breast health nurse or x-ray technologist usually takes the x-rays, but the resulting films are read and interpreted by a radiologist, who reports the results to your physician.
The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening guidelines for early detection of cancer in women who have no symptoms:
National Cancer Institute Guideline for Screening Mammography
American Cancer Society Guideline for Screening Mammography
Women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram on a regular basis, every one to two years.
Women 40 years of age and older should have a screening mammogram every year.
Consult your physician regarding your personal breast cancer risk and the screening guidelines that are appropriate for you.