A mammogram is an important step in taking care of yourself and your breasts. Early detection of breast cancer is the key to successful treatment.

Over the years, there has been much debate over breast cancer screening and there are conflicting recommendations from various organizations. There is agreement, however, that a mammogram starting at age 40 saves the most lives. Radiologists and physicians that treat patients with breast cancer all recommend starting mammograms at age 40 and continuing to have a mammogram every year as long as a woman’s life expectancy is greater than 10 years.

It is important to talk with your doctor about beginning mammograms at age 40, but earlier if you have certain risk factors. Your doctor should explain to you the potential harms as well as the benefits of screening mammogram starting at age 40.

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray that allows specialists to look for changes in breast tissue that aren’t normal. But many women are a bit anxious about their first mammogram experience. Knowing what to expect leading into the screening is helpful to alleviate that anxiety.

12 things to help you be prepared for your first mammogram

Schedule your mammogram when your breasts aren’t tender or swollen (the week after your menstrual period).

Discuss any new findings or problems in your breasts with your healthcare provider before getting the exam.

Know your family history. You will complete a questionnaire asking about your family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and this information is useful for the technician and radiologist to best understand your risk of breast cancer.

Wear a two-piece outfit because you will need to remove your top and bra. The facility will give you a wrap to wear. Do not apply deodorant, antiperspirant, powder, lotion or ointment on or around your chest on the day of your mammogram.

Describe any breast changes or problems you’re having to the technologist doing the mammogram. Also, let them know any medical history that could affect your breast cancer risk.

Before getting any type of imaging test such as a mammogram, tell the technologist if you’re breastfeeding or if you think you might be pregnant.

A technologist will position your breasts for the mammogram. You and the technologist are the only ones in the room during the mammogram.

While you are standing, the technologist will position your breast on the X-ray machine’s plate. The plastic upper plate is lowered to compress (flattening the breast provides a clearer view) the breast for a few seconds while an X-ray picture is taken. The breast is repositioned and compressed again for a few seconds to take another view. This is done on the other breast. Two views of each breast are taken for a screening mammogram, however, for some women, such as those with breast implants or large breasts, more pictures may be needed.

You may feel some discomfort for a few seconds. If you have pain, tell the technologist so she can make the compression more comfortable for you.

You should get your results within a week. Call your provider or the facility where you had your mammogram if you do not get your results.

Most insurances, Medicare and Medicaid cover annual mammograms (by NC law, all NC insurance covers mammography, in a few plans it may go against the deductible). If you don’t have insurance there are free or low- cost programs. Each county in North Carolina through their local health departments has a Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program (BCCCP) to help cover women who need financial assistance with screening mammograms.

Congratulations on getting your screening mammogram. Time to mark your calendar for the next year’s screening.

Janet Magruder is a Nurse Navigator, as well as a licensed RN, BSN, OCN, CBCN, for the Mission Breast Program. To schedule an exam, call Mission Breast Center at 828-213-XRAY (9729).

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