Mammography plays an important role in the early detection of breast cancer by identifying the masses associated with the disease. It is a process involves the use of low energy X-rays to examine the human breast for diagnosis and screening.
Your doctor uses a Mammogram (the screening tool) and performs a non-invasive X-Ray to obtain pictures of each breast that can be used to identify any abnormalities.
Types of mammography
There are two types of mammography procedures.
Screening mammograms – which are the type that are taken as part of a regular procedure in the event that no symptoms have presented themselves. This type of mammogram enables you and your doctor discover what is normal for your breasts and if there have been any changes since a previous mammogram.
Diagnostic mammograms – these ones focus on potential breast problems. They are recommended after the discovery of a lump during screening.
Women aged 40 and above are advised to get screening mammograms on a yearly basis. Those who hail from families with a history of breast cancer are advised to get them at a much younger age.
Heading into the mammogram
You are advised not to schedule your mammogram for the week before your menstrual period, particularly if your breasts are tender. It is advisable to have the mammogram a week after your period. It is also of utmost importance to advise the relevant parties if you are pregnant.
You are also advised
- Not to wear deodorant or lotion under your arms or on your breasts on the day of the exam as these may appear on the mammogram as calcium spots.
- Share information on any pre-existing breast symptoms or problems prior to the exam
During the mammogram
Each breast is examined separately and compressed against the film to obtain maximum visualization of masses or calcifications.
You will be required to undress from the waist up and take off any jewelry you may be wearing. Each breast will be placed on an X-ray plate and a compressor will be used to push it down to flatten the breast for a clearer image. Do not worry, this is not a painful procedure, but you might be asked to hold your breath for each picture to ensure accuracy.
The breast needs to be compressed in order to minimize the blurring of the x-ray image that may arise from the patient’s movement. Compression additionally evens out the shape of the breast, allowing for the x-rays to reach the detector using a shorter path. This in turn reduces the dosage of radiation and improves the quality of the x-ray image. Compression further allows all tissues to be visualized so that small abnormalities are less likely to be obscured by overlying breast tissue.
What are benefits of mammography?
They play a big role in saving lives. How is this so?
Well…an early detection of cancer in most cases means that it will be less likely to spread, and treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease.
They are effective due to the fact that they are one of the best methods of detecting breast cancer early.
Are there limits to mammography?
Yes, there are. This stems from the fact that mammograms can be difficult to read owing to the wide variations in breast tissue amongst women. Denser breasts have been known to make for difficult imagery and assessment and as a result, there may be various readings recording from the mammography.
What about risks?
Owing to the use of x-rays during the mammography process, patients are inevitably exposed to small amounts of ionizing radiation. The risk emanating from this exposure however appears to more prevalent amongst women below the age of 40.
Another main risk is that mammograms are not perfect. In some cases, normal breast tissue can hide a breast cancer such that it fails to show in the mammogram; this is called a false negative. In other cases, a mammography can identify an abnormality that looks like a cancer, but which turns out to be normal. This is called a false positive. In most cases therefore, your doctor might order for additional tests to clear any doubts.
So, when is the best time to get a mammogram?
It is recommended that you do get to have an in-depth discussion with your doctor about the pros and cons of mammography before going through the procedure.
However, women from the age of 40 are recommended to get a mammograph done on a yearly basis.
What next after a mammogram?
A radiologist (a physician trained to interpret radiology examinations) will analyze the X-ray images and send a report to your physician. Depending on the results, you will either be given a clean bill of health, or sent for more tests- usually to confirm the other results or give a more conclusive diagnosis. This can be done through biopsy or additional X-ray tests. If you are found to have breast cancer, you will be started on a treatment plan.