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Demystifying Mammograms

Demystifying Mammograms

Breast cancer is one of the most common serious health risks for women. More women are diagnosed with breast cancer than any other cancer (excluding skin cancer). In fact, 1 in every 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point in her life.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so we wanted to shed some light on the best way you can stay one step ahead of breast cancer: mammograms. Mammograms can help detect breast cancer early, meaning it’s far more likely that doctors will be able to successfully treat the cancer.

What are mammograms? Why do I need to get them?

A mammogram is an imaging process that uses low-dose x-rays to see into breast tissue. Doctors use the images produced by the mammogram process to see if there are any abnormalities—potential cancers—in the breasts.

You need to get mammograms because they’re the most effective way to detect breast cancer in its early stages, when it’s most treatable. Mammograms can detect cancers before they have gotten big enough to be felt with the hand (the common “cancer lump”). This is why it’s important to get mammograms regularly, even if you think your breasts feel normal and healthy.

When should I start getting mammograms?

Here are the general age guidelines for when women should start getting mammograms, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Ages 40 to 44: You can start getting annual mammograms if you want, but you don’t necessarily need to.
  • 45 to 54: You should get a mammogram every year.
  • 55 and older: You should switch to getting a mammogram once every two years. Or, if you prefer to go each year, you may continue to do so.
  • Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.

How do mammograms work? What do they show?

Mammograms involve a machine specially designed to only analyze breast tissue. The machine has two plates—one that you rest your breasts on and one that lies overtop of your breasts to compress and spread the tissue apart. Because mammograms use less radiation than regular x-rays, the tissue needs to be spread apart so that the low dose of radiation can penetrate the breast effectively.

Mammograms show an x-ray view of your breast tissue. Radiologists (doctors who specialize in radiology and x-ray imaging) can analyze your mammography results to look for abnormalities that may indicate breast cancer.

What should I know before I get a mammogram? How can I prepare for my screening?

The biggest thing you should know before getting a mammogram is that it’s completely normal (and necessary) to be getting regular mammograms. It’s nothing to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about. Everyone has regular dental cleanings, and no one makes a big fuss about that. Mammograms should be the same way—fuss-free. They are normal, safe, and necessary to help ensure every woman’s health.

You should also know that some women experience discomfort during mammograms when the two plates compress the breasts during the x-ray process. This compression only lasts a few seconds, however, and is not painful.

There’s nothing you can really do to prepare for a mammogram. However, it is important to gain a general familiarity with your breasts’ shape and feel. Knowing what your healthy breasts feel like can help you notice when something is wrong.

How am I going to pay for a mammogram?

Mammograms are generally covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and most private insurers. There are also free or low-cost options available to non-insured or low-income women. To find out more about what options are available at little to no cost, contact the NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237. You can also contact local hospitals, health departments, women’s centers, or other community centers in your area.

Final thoughts

Hopefully this article has shed a little light on the topic of mammograms. It’s our hope that women will see this article (and similar efforts by other organizations) and realize that mammograms are a normal, healthy part of every older woman’s life. Let’s demystify mammograms in our society!

What experiences do you have with breast cancer or with mammograms? Do you have any advice to offer your fellow women in the SkyBlue community? Let us know about it in the comments section below!

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