Mammograms Explained: Duration, Radiation Exposure, & More

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Mammograms are the best tool for detecting breast cancer early and giving women a fighting chance to beat the disease before it spreads. Screening mammograms can be used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease, while diagnostic mammograms can be used to diagnose breast cancer after a lump or other sign of the disease has been found.

Below, we discuss everything you need to know about mammograms,  including answers to the common questions: “what is a mammogram”, “what happens during a mammogram”, “how long does a mammogram take”, and more.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a procedure that uses x-ray technology to provide pictures of the inside of a patient’s breast. Radiologists use mammograms to look for any abnormalities that could signify breast cancer. Regular screening mammograms are the best instrument doctors and patients have to detect breast cancer early, oftentimes years before it can be felt.

What happens during a mammogram?

During your mammogram, you will stand in front of a specially designed x-ray machine and the radiology technologist will gently place your breast on a clear plastic plate. Another plate will firmly press down on your breast to flatten it. Multiple images will be taken at different angles to ensure your radiologist can see everything. Then, your other breast will be imaged the same way. 

How long does a mammogram take?

Mammograms are a rather short imaging procedure. The whole procedure should only take about 20 minutes, and the actual breast compression only lasts a few seconds. Some women find mammograms uncomfortable, but any discomfort is very brief and well worth it. Before your appointment, don’t be afraid to share any questions or concerns you may have about the procedure with your doctor or radiologist.

How often do I need to have a mammogram?

Timing of mammogram scheduling depends on a few factors such as age, your risk factor, and your family history of breast cancer. Below are some of the recommended screening guidelines for women with average breast cancer risk (please note that for women who are considered high risk for the disease, it may be recommended that you start getting mammograms earlier or receive them more frequently than low-risk individuals)

  • Women age 40 to 70 should get mammograms annually and are covered by your insurance under the Affordable Care Act. 

  • Women 70 and older can switch to mammograms every 2 years or continue yearly screening.

Will I be exposed to radiation during a mammogram?

Mammograms use traditional x-ray technology, which means you will be exposed to a very small amount of mammogram radiation, but it is nothing to worry about. If you are concerned with radiation exposure, speak with your radiologist ahead of time.

Where can I book my mammogram?

If you are looking to schedule your mammogram in San Francisco, BICRAD has board-certified radiologists who specialize in women’s diagnostic and screening imaging. Schedule an appointment at a BICRAD location near you!