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Reasons to Get One, What to Expect, Associated Risks & More

2 Reasons Why Would You Need a Mammogram

1. Screening mammograms

Screening mammograms are performed on a routine basis to check for cancer. Most women over age 45 should receive annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer,[1] but in some cases, your doctor may recommend having mammograms before 45. And, depending on your medical history, the doctor may suggest additional cancer screenings.[1]

2. Diagnostic mammograms

Diagnostic mammograms are performed when a person has cancer symptoms. Your doctor may also order a diagnostic mammogram if the results of your screening mammogram are unclear.[2] Diagnostic mammograms are in-depth tests. During this type of mammogram, your technician takes new pictures of your breast tissue. A radiologist also examines the images during the test to make sure the pictures are clear and readable.[3] Diagnostic mammograms let your doctor take a closer look at any areas of concern.

Understanding Mammograms

Mammograms are X-ray images of your breast tissue that can help reveal the presence of breast cancer.[4] Most women over 40 should receive at least one mammogram every 1-2 years, and are sometimes included in an annual well woman exam.[1]

Mammograms are an essential tool for diagnosing breast cancer in its earliest stages. The earlier your cancer is diagnosed, the better your chances for recovery. Even if your cancer is not curable, early detection can still help you live a longer and healthier life.[2]

But, not everyone needs a yearly mammogram. Women under 40 seldom undergo mammograms unless they have symptoms of breast cancer. Your doctor may also suggest early mammograms if you have a family history of breast cancer, but most healthy young women do not need screening mammograms.[1]

While mammograms are a valuable tool, they cannot detect all forms of breast cancer. Some people who undergo mammograms receive false negative results, which means they have cancer, but it does not show up on the mammogram.[2] In other cases, a person may receive a false positive result, which can incorrectly show that a person has cancer.[2]

Like all diagnostic tests, mammograms have limitations. Your doctor can help you interpret your test results and make decisions about your future care. If your mammogram results are normal, but you are still concerned about breast cancer, ask your doctor for additional advice.

Your doctor may also recommend performing monthly self-exams to check for lumps or changes in your breast tissue. If you notice any changes, do not wait until your next check-up or mammogram. Contact your doctor right away.[1]

Risks of a Mammogram

Mammograms are a useful diagnostic tool, but they also carry some risks. Mammograms use a small amount of radiation to view your breast tissue. Over time, radiation exposure can increase your risk of cancer.[2]

Radiation exposure can be especially dangerous for a developing fetus, so you should not receive a mammogram if you are pregnant.[2] If you think you may be pregnant, notify your doctor or technician before having an X-ray. 

For most people, the benefits of mammograms far outweigh the risks. Mammograms can help detect cancer in its early stages while it is still treatable. But, if you are at low risk for breast cancer, it may be safer to have mammograms less often. Consult with your doctor to determine whether you need to receive yearly mammograms.

What to Expect with a Mammogram

During a mammogram, patients are directed to stand in front of an X-ray machine. A technician places your bare breast on a special plate, and a second plate is used flatten out your breast tissue. The machine then takes X-rays of your breasts.[4]

In some cases, your technician may need to take several different images to get precise results. This is a normal part of the mammogram process and not a cause for alarm.

After your mammogram is over, you can return home and resume your normal activities. You can usually expect to receive your results within a few weeks.[3] If you have not received your results by then, contact your doctor directly.

If your results are normal, no further action is needed. Continue performing self-exams at home and always receive your next screening mammogram on schedule.

If your results are abnormal, you may need more tests. Keep in mind that an abnormal mammogram does not necessarily mean that you have cancer as false positives sometimes

occur. However, your doctor may refer you to a specialist so you can receive an expert opinion on your test results.[4]

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Mammograms

  • Am I at high risk for breast cancer?
  • How often should I receive a mammogram?
  • When should I start receiving mammograms?
  • How will I be notified of my results?
  • What happens if my results are abnormal?
  • Where should I receive my mammogram?
  • What breast cancer screenings are safe for pregnant women?

Mammograms May Also Be Known as

  • Breast X-ray
  • Roentgenogram
  • Breast screening


  1. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer.
  2. National Cancer Institute. Mammograms.
  3. American Cancer Society. Mammograms: What to Know Before You Go.
  4. Center for Disease Control. What Is a Mammogram?
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