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A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. It can be used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease. It can also be used if you have a lump or other sign of breast cancer. Mammography screening is the type of mammogram that checks you when you have no symptoms.
A mammogram uses a machine designed to look only at breast tissue. The machine takes x-rays at lower doses than usual x-rays. Because these x-rays don’t go through tissue easily, the machine has 2 plates that compress or flatten the breast to spread the tissue apart.
The main risk of mammograms is that they aren’t perfect. Normal breast tissue can hide a breast cancer so that it doesn’t show up on the mammogram. This is called a false negative. And mammography can identify an abnormality that looks like a cancer, but turns out to be normal. This “false alarm” is called a false positive. Besides worrying about being diagnosed with breast cancer, a false positive means more tests and follow-up visits, which can be stressful. To make up for these limitations, more than mammography is often needed. Women also need to practice breast self-examination, get regular breast examinations by an experienced health care professional, and, in some cases, also get another form of breast imaging, such as breast MRI or ultrasound.
Some women wonder about the risks of radiation exposure due to mammography. Modern-day mammography screening only involves a tiny amount of radiation — even less than a standard chest X-ray.
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