A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast that doctors use to detect early signs of breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women between the ages of 40 and 74 get a regular mammogram every one to two years. Dr. Rebecca Alleyne, a fellowship trained breast surgery specialist and a board certified general surgeon in Los Angeles, says that it is not recommended that women under the age of 40 get mammograms.
“The reason we don’t recommend mammograms for women under 40 is the breast tissue is still very dense,” she says. “If you have denser breast tissue, which means more glands than fat—and that they look perkier as opposed to saggy—the X-ray doesn’t pass through as well. As women get older and closer to menopause, the hormone levels affecting the breast tissue drop, and the breast becomes more fat than glands. There is an exception to the ‘start at 40’ guideline, though. Women who have a strong family history of relatives—mother, sister, grandmother—with breast cancer under age 50 should actually get screened earlier. If your mom had breast cancer when she was 35, then you’ll subtract 10 from your mom’s age of diagnosis, which means that you should start getting screened at age 25. The father’s side of the family is important, too, so women who have paternal grandmothers, aunts or cousins diagnosed before 50 should ask about this as well.”
During the mammogram, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a technologist will place your breast on a clear plastic plate, with another plate firmly pressing your breast from above in order to take the X-ray. These plates flatten the breast in order to fully view the breast tissue. The steps are then repeated to take a side view X-ray of each breast. This can sound like a painful process—and it is, somewhat.
“It’s not comfortable,” Alleyne laughs. “I’ve had two so I know! One of the things you can do to decrease some of the discomfort is to avoid caffeinated drinks two weeks before testing. Caffeine makes the breast more sensitive.” She also suggests trying not to schedule the mammogram around the time of your period because the breasts are more sensitive and to take an Aspirin or Motrin about an hour beforehand.
Mammograms will always be an important tool in preventing breast cancer and early detection, so if you learn that you are more at risk in developing this disease, be sure to see your doctor and schedule regular screenings. And even if you aren’t at an increased risk, pay attention to your body and give yourself regular self breast exams. Early detection is key. To learn more about mammograms, visit the National Cancer Institute website.