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The purpose of breast cancer screening is to detect early breast cancers before they can be detected by self-breast examination. It is believed that part of the reason that less people are dying from breast cancer these days is due to this early detection and starting treatment early before it can spread.

There are essentially 3 or 4 ways to screen for breast cancer. These methods are mammography, self-breast exam and physician breast exam. Occasionally MRI may be used in select patients. We will limit our discussion to mammograms for this article.

A mammogram is essentially an x-ray of the breast. This is the best screening test to reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer. Mammography is performed by arranging the naked breast between two plates that flatten the breast somewhat. This is done to spread out the breast tissue for better viewing of the breast tissue. Once the breast tissue is arranged, an x-ray is taken. This can be uncomfortable for the patient but it only lasts a few seconds and is well tolerated by most everyone. One can reduce the brief discomfort by scheduling your mammogram just after your period. You may also wish to take some Ibuprofen beforehand. It is also advised that you do not use underarm deodorant the day of your mammogram.

The mammogram images are then reviewed by a Radiologist. In younger women it is not uncommon to need to get extra images due to young, dense breast tissue. Getting more images does not mean that you have cancer; the Radiologist may just need more images for a clear and accurate view of the breast. In most cases, the results are mailed to you. You should call the breast center if you do not get results in 30 days. If your mammogram is abnormal, your doctor will advise you as to the next appropriate step.

So who needs mammograms? There is a lot of recent controversy about who needs mammograms and when. There is agreement that all women over the age of 50 should have annual mammograms. For women age 40-49 there is a lot of disagreement. We recommend that women in this age group have a discussion with their doctor to determine whether annual mammograms are recommended for them based on their personal history, breast cancer risk, and individual preferences. Mammograms are generally not recommended for women younger than age 40 unless their risks for breast cancer are higher than the general population.