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Mammogram 101: What You Need to Know Before Your First Screening

Not sure when to get a mammogram or what to expect? We've got you covered.


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This year some 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed, with 7,420 cases and 1,280 deaths estimated in New Jersey alone. Mammograms are the best tool we have to catch the disease in its earliest stages when it’s confined to the breast. They take just 30 minutes of your time and cause a few minutes of discomfort, so there’s no excuse to skip your appointment. 


Start at age 40 (or sooner, if you have a family history). Many organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging recommend women get their first mammogram at 40, while the American Cancer Society recently raised the age to 45. High-risk women who have a close family member (mom, sister or daughter) with the disease, or who’ve tested positive for the inherited mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2 (the most studied genes linked to breast cancer risk) should talk to their doctors about getting screened earlier and possibly getting additional tests done, like an MRI.


Per NJ law, mammography providers must notify you if you have dense breasts, which have less fatty tissue. Dense breast tissue can look gray or white on a mammogram, making it harder for doctors to detect cancer. Some (but not all) women with dense breasts have an increased risk of breast cancer. If you have dense breasts, ask your doctor which tests are best. There are options like digital mammography, and breast tomosynthesis, which takes multiple X-rays from different angles to create a 3-D image. 


Schedule your appointment for the week after your period ends—that’s when your breasts are the least sensitive. When going to a new facility, make sure to bring copies of previous mammograms.

Wear a shirt with pants or a skirt so you can undress from the waist up. Avoid using deodorants, antiperspirants, perfumes, powders or lotions on your chest and underarms; they contain ingredients that can show up on a mammogram and make it harder for the doctor to read the results.

How does a mammogram actually work? First, you stand in front of an X-ray machine while a radiologist places one breast at a time between two plates. The plates press and flatten the breast tissue so it can be seen on the mammogram. 

Your mammogram facility is required by federal law to send your results to you within 30 days. If you don’t hear anything, call back. Then check it off your to-do list until your next screening.

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