10 Scientific Facts About Mammograms Every Woman Should Know

woman getting mammogramA mammogram is basically an x-ray of your breast. True, it's not as painless as an x-ray. And not all folks like a stranger's cold hands squeezing and smashing their breast tissue between two heavy plates. But as of now, this nifty little test is considered one of the best ways to screen for breast cancer.


Here's what you need to know before you get a mammogram (besides, you know, that little heads-up about the cold hands and the merciless squeezing).

1. It's been around a while. A Berlin surgeon first invented the mammogram back in 1913. (Don't you wonder what that machine looked like?) Still, it didn't become a widely used diagnostic tool until the 1960s. And it didn't become standard procedure until 1976.

2. Mammograms benefit older women the most. Results from randomized trials show that getting a mammogram can reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer in women between the ages of 40 and 74 -- but especially those over 50.

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3. You may want to wait to get regular mammograms until you're 40. If you're under 40 and don't have certain risk factors for cancer, annual mammograms may not be the way to go. To date, studies have NOT shown a benefit to women under age 40 getting a regular screening mammogram. But every woman is different, and 7 percent of all breast cancer cases happen in women under 40, so you'll do best to discuss your risk with your doctor to decide what is right for you.

4. False-positives happen. When a radiologist thinks they've spotted something sinister on your 'gram, you're led through more tests and even a biopsy. But sometimes, oops! A mistake is made and all was always well. False-positives (or FPs, as we're calling them) are most common in younger women, those who've had previous breast biopsies or have a family history of breast cancer, or those who are taking hormones.

5. Mammograms don't just look for "lumps." It's a bit more involved than that. Radiologists search for calcium deposits, some of which are linked to cancer. Dense areas are sometimes a red flag, as are distorted tissues that can mean cancer has entered neighboring tissues.

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6. They're not 100 percent accurate. Mammograms miss about 1 in 5 cancers in women. The cancer could be too small to spot. Or it could be somewhere like your armpit that's hard to make out on the mammogram.

7. 3D mammograms may be more accurate than traditional ones. Similar to a CT scan, breast tomosynthesis basically puts "slices" of images together to recreate a more detailed image. Studies show 3D mammograms are better at detecting breast cancer without so many of those pesky false-positives.

8. Lotions and perfume don't mix with mammograms. Deodorant, creams, and powders are a big no-no, too. The reason? They all contain tiny metallic particles which show up on the mammogram, causing mass confusion.

9. Mammograms expose you to radiation. Low doses of radiation are necessary to produce clear images. During a mammogram, you get about 0.4 mSv, which is a measurement of radiation. It's just a touch more than the 0.3 mSv of radiation you're exposed to by simply being in your natural surroundings over seven weeks. Still! One study did find that radiation from imaging tests may actually raise cancer risk.

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10. You'll get results quickly. No need to wait. And wait. And wait some more. Federal law now requires mammogram centers to send out results of tests within 30 days.


Image © giannonip/iStock

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