Reclaiming Intimacy: Mammography: Breasts, Benefits & Risks

While mammography is not a cure-all tool in terms of breast cancer, it can be a useful tool in helping with early diagnosis and detection in many. Mammography is the x-ray imaging of your breasts to check for lumps, bumps, and any other abnormality. The earlier the detection, the greater the chance that cancer can be removed, or even fully treated. The worldwide consensus now says that all women over the age of forty should be getting a regular mammogram to maintain breast health. Using tools like self-breast examinations and mammography, the likelihood of needing a full mastectomy reduces substantially. The main purposes of mammography are screening and diagnostic testing.

Screening mammography is used as a preventative measure to catch any breast changes or abnormalities before they develop into full-blown cancer. Women who have this testing often have no signs or symptoms of having cancer at all.

Diagnostic mammography is used once there have been signs or symptoms of a possible abnormality or cancer. These signs could be nipple thickening or drainage, breast changes, a breast lump, breast pain, or any difference in how the breast skin looks or feels. This type of mammogram is also used if there are abnormalities found during a screening mammogram.

Here are some important benefits and facts about mammography.

  • Finding breast cancer as early as possible greatly reduces the risk of dying from this disease by thirty percent or more. Mammograms should begin regularly by the age of forty, or earlier if your doctors find that you are at a higher risk level for one or many reasons.
  • If you have dense breast tissue or you are younger than fifty years old, ask about digital mammograms. These are recorded on to a computer so that doctors have the ability to enlarge any section of the mammogram to examine more closely.
  • Mammograms take about twenty minutes, which is reasonably fast. The discomfort is rated from minimal to mediocre for most women, and overall, the procedure is reasonably safe. If you have anxiety about having the mammogram, consider using a facility for testing that gives results the same day, before you leave. This might help ease the worry that would come with waiting to hear your results.

How should I prepare for my mammogram?

There are a few things to consider and plan for when preparing for a mammogram.

  • Find a certified facility (backed by the FDA) which ensures that the facility is up to all standards.
  • When scheduling your appointment, do not schedule during a time when your breasts are naturally sore or sensitive. This is usually the time immediately after your menstrual period ends if you have not yet gone through menopause. Your breasts are most likely to be touchy the week before and the week of your period, otherwise.
  • Bring any previous imaging of your breasts with you to your appointment, especially if you have gone to multiple facilities. This allows doctors to compare past screenings with current, to further help detect any changes.
  • Avoid using deodorant immediately before your mammogram. Further than simply deodorant, avoid shower creams, lotions, gels, powders, perfumes and anything else related to these products under your arms or on your breasts. The microscope metallic particles that can sometimes be found in them could be visible on your films and cause confusion.
  • If you find mammograms to be painful or uncomfortable, consider taking an over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol, or others), aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, or others) about an hour before the mammogram. If you are unsure of your dosage, have a chat with the pharmacist or your doctor to ensure the correct dosage.

What should I expect the day of my mammogram?

After you have checked in to the facility, you will be given a room with a gown and asked to remove your clothing from the waist up and model their fabulous paper gowns. To make this easier, wear a shirt and bra that are easy-on, easy-off.

To begin, you will stand in front of an x-ray machine that is specifically designed for this procedure and taking special images of your breasts. The technician will help place one of your breasts at a time on a small flat area that can raise and lower a bit to match your height. The technician will help you position your head, arms and abdomen to allow the best view of your breast and tissue for the image.

Very slowly your breast is pressed against the platform by another clear, plastic flat “plate.” Pressure will be applied at this point, and sometimes, women find this part uncomfortable. The pressure helps to spread your breast tissue for the best x-ray possible. If this becomes too painful, be honest with your technician and work together to find a more comfortable position.

Breast tissues are very dense and thick, and the tissues must be made flatter to allow the x-ray to penetrate the tissue for the images. The pressure also helps to hold your breast still no there is less blurring in the final images. This also minimizes the dosage of radiation given to the body from the machine. During the brief x-ray exposure, you will be asked to be still and hold your breath.

Risks associated with Mammography

Just a handful of years ago, the use of mammography and safety was brought in to question. Mammography machines do involve radiation, which does affect the body. Here are the risk factors that come up when mammography is being discussed.

  • The accuracy of the mammogram depends on many factors. The skill and experience of technicians and techniques used to obtain images, plus the experience of the Radiologist. Other factors such as your age, weight and breast tissue density may result in false-negative results or false-positive results.
  • Some cancers are undetectable by mammogram. In many cases, the psychical examination of the breast results in feeling the lump or tumor, while it is missed on the mammogram. Cancers can be too small, or in an area that is hidden behind or covered by something else. Statistics show that mammograms miss the cancer of one in five women (NIH).
  • Mammograms do expose the human body to radiation, although the dose is very low. For most women, the benefits of having the mammogram outweigh the risks posed by this amount of radiation.
  • Breast tissue of younger women can be harder to read than that of older women and their breast tissue. Younger breast tissue contains more glands and ligaments than that of older breast tissue. The dense breast tissue is complex to read. With age, breast tissue becomes fattier and has fewer glands which make reading the images easier.
  • Mammogram testing can lead to more testing. For women of any age, about ten percent of mammograms done end up requiring additional testing. This might mean additional imaging, additional testing like ultrasound, biopsy, or lab testing. Many times, the abnormal findings on a mammogram screening are not at all cancer-related. If your mammogram results come back abnormal, your Radiologist will compare it with any previous mammogram results.
  • Not all cancers found in the breast via mammogram can be cured. Certain types of aggressive cancers spread and grow rapidly within the body.

What happens after my mammogram? Will I get my results?

After the mammogram is completed of both breasts, you will redress while the technician checks the quality of your images. If they are too blurry or something did not work out correctly, you might have to repeat the process once more. Law states that you should have your results within thirty days, but many facilities offer same-week or even same day results. Make sure to consider this when selecting your facility to test.

To receive your results, your Radiologist will interpret the black-and-white images and report the written findings to your doctor. The Radiologist is looking for evidence of any abnormality, cancer or noncancerous condition that would require further testing or treatment. Common findings found in mammograms are:

  • calcium deposits or calcifications in ducts and tissues
  • lumps, bumps or masses
  • asymmetrical areas of the breast
  • dense tissue appearing in only one breast, or in one specific area
  • new dense tissue found since last breast check

The Radiologist will alert your doctor to any abnormality found on your mammogram. In some situations, an MRI may be ordered for diagnostic magnetic resonance imaging if certain information is not found from the mammogram. If at any time you have questions about the process, the mammogram, or your results, do not hesitate to contact your doctor or the facility you have scheduled your mammogram with.

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Reclaiming Intimacy

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