Mammography, or X-ray of the breasts, is an investigation that enables early detection of breast cancer even before you or your doctor detect a lump or become aware of any changes in your breasts.
Specialised X-ray machines and equipment are used to take X-rays of both breasts. The pictures taken are then examined and interpreted by our Specialist Breast Trained Radiologists who will report the results back to your doctor. Breast cancer may show up as tiny specks of calcium, masses and densities or subtle distortions on the X-ray.
Detection of early breast cancer, before it has spread to the lymph glands under the arms is more likely to be associated with cure.
Many breast cancers these days can be cured by an operation which does not remove the breast. A common cause of a breast lump in women between 35 and 60 years is a cyst, not cancer. No test is perfect and the same is true for mammography. A small lump in breasts that are dense may not show up on the mammogram, so it is vital that any breast lump be investigated fully. Any lump should be examined by your doctor.
You may be asked to change into a gown, a radiographer will explain the mammography procedure to you and ask a few questions around prior mammograms, family history of breast disease etc. Your breasts will then be put, one at a time, between two special plates and compressed (pressed down) between the plates by the x-ray machine for a few seconds while x-rays are taken.
Two views of each breast are performed as a minimum.
The mammography and the compression are performed by a specially trained radiographer. While the compression may be uncomfortable and perhaps painful it lasts only seconds. Without compression, the x-rays would be blurry which makes it hard to see any abnormality. Compression also reduces the amount of radiation required for the mammogram.
Who needs to have a Mammogram?
Every woman over 35 who hasn’t had a mammogram in the last 6 months.
Women with a family history of breast cancer should have regular mammograms commencing at either ten years before the age their relative developed breast cancer, or at age 40 years, whichever occurs first.
Women whose breasts are difficult to examine, for example; due to prior surgery to the breasts, or even because of size.
Anyone who has a new symptom, e.g, a lump.
Does having a Mammogram hurt?
Your breasts have to be compressed between two plates, so there might be some slight discomfort. This is an essential part of the process to ensure the best possible images. It only lasts for a short time. If you have cyclical tenderness, we recommend that you have your mammogram just after your period, if possible, as breasts are less likely to be tender at this time of month. Avoidance of coffee for 48 hours before the test may also lessen discomfort.
Breast cancer affects about 1 in 10 women in Australia and even more in those with a family history of the disease. As mammograms can detect very early cancer – often at the stage when it can be completely cured, it is recommended to women for that reason.
Risks / Side Effects
Like all x-rays, having a mammogram exposes you to some radiation, but only a small amount. Such risk is far outweighed by the benefit of early detection of breast cancer, significantly reducing the death rate from the disease.
If you have breast implants there is an extremely small risk of damage or rupture to the implant.
It is important to note that mammography does not detect all breast cancers, even when the cancer has caused a lump that can be felt. In such a circumstance, a normal mammogram does not mean that the lump can be ignored. In this situation, other diagnostic tests such as breast ultrasound and needle biopsy may be necessary to find out the cause of the lump.
Side effects are rare, but you may experience breast tenderness, bruising, or splitting of the skin if your skin is fragile.