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Getting your first mammogram

By The Health News Team | October 20, 2023
X-ray machine for mammograms

For many women, turning 40 signals a medical rite of passage: It’s the age women typically make plans for their first mammogram.

Although it’s a common procedure, getting a mammogram for the first time can be unsettling. Being prepared for what’s ahead can help ease the stress.

At a basic level, a mammogram is a procedure that takes an X-ray of your breast to detect early signs of breast cancer. Every year, almost 300,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women, and many of these cases are found in the early stages, thanks to mammograms.

It's not unusual to be nervous about getting a mammogram. You might have a lot of questions or concerns about what the procedure will be like. But knowing what you can expect for your first screening, or baseline, mammogram should make the experience far less stressful — even stress-free.

Before the screening: Scheduling and preparation

While you can schedule a mammogram any time of year, some local health care providers accept walk-ins and offer same-day appointments in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

For example, new and established Sharp Rees-Stealy patients can take advantage of convenient walk-in times for screening mammograms in October. Throughout the month, six Sharp Rees-Stealy locations are offering screenings — no appointment needed — Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for you to get screened because it is so important,” says Kim Gaddy, mammography lead for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers. “Mammograms can find cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.”

In addition, the Sharp Memorial Hospital Breast Imaging Center is offering same-day routine screening mammograms for existing patients. To schedule a same-day appointment at this location, patients can call 858-939-5100.

When preparing to schedule, try to plan your mammogram during a week that is not directly before your menstrual cycle. Breasts can be more tender at that time. And on the day of your mammogram, be sure to avoid wearing deodorant, lotions and powders. Presence of these substances can sometimes affect the images.

During the screening: Communicating with your technologist

At the imaging center, a receptionist will guide you to the changing room, where you will disrobe from the waist up and put on the cover-up provided. If you are wearing large or dangling jewelry, you may be asked to remove it. The technologist then takes you back for your screening, runs you through a few intake questions, and explains what to expect during the 10- to 15-minute process.

For the screening, the technologist will typically take two images of each breast — one from top to bottom, and one from side to side. To obtain the images, one breast is placed between two plastic plates. The plates gradually compress the breast, using just enough compression to capture high-quality images. The process is then repeated with the other breast.

At any time during your mammogram, you are encouraged to communicate with the technologist if you feel pain or discomfort — or for any other reason. “Our highly trained and experienced technologists care about your comfort and will work with you to get through the exam as quickly and smoothly as possible,” reassures Gaddy, who has worked for Sharp for over 30 years.

After the screening: Awaiting the results

Once the screening is complete, you can get changed, swipe on some deodorant, and proceed with your day. While the technologist will not be able to give you any information on the results of your exam, a radiologist will read your mammogram in about a week.

Official results will arrive via your online health portal (if your medical group offers one) as well as in the mail within 7 to 10 days. Sometimes, after baseline mammograms, the radiologist may request for you to return for additional imaging, especially if you have dense breast tissue.

Take the time to care for yourself

Mammograms remain the best screening tool for breast cancer detection. Staying on top of preventive care is truly one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.

“Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a good reminder for women to be proactive about their own health care needs,” confirms Gaddy. “We are all busy these days, but October can be a time to renew our commitment to take care of ourselves.”

Beginning at age 40, women and individuals assigned female at birth should start a conversation with their doctor about routine breast screening, including when it should begin and what type of screening is best. When scheduling regular screening mammograms, your appointment should be at least one year and one day from your last annual screening.

Learn more about breast cancer; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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