About 1 in 12 women will contract breast cancer some time during their life, with the odds increasing as they age. But with modern medicine, treatment can be relatively simple and effective. Key to that success, though, is early detection. A regular mammogram is one traditional and still highly useful tool to do so.
A mammogram is a simple x-ray photograph of the breast area. The plates are then examined by a radiologist, who is trained to look at the subtle differences in the picture for indications of tumors. It is an important part of the regime to distinguish between benign cysts and cancerous growths.
When getting a mammogram you will partly disrobe and lie against a flat surface that is, unfortunately often cold. Be prepared for some mild discomfort. That discomfort will continue as the procedure progresses.
As the technician prepares you for the x-ray photograph, they’ll typically place a device called a compressor over your breast. That’s needed in order to flatten the tissue, in order to get the clearest possible x-ray photograph. The discomfort isn’t pleasant, but the procedure often takes only a few minutes so it’s well worth it for the information gleaned.
X-rays will be taken from several angles in order to provide the radiologist with several views. Since tumors begin small, and can reside deep under tissue, the more visual information the doctors get, the better chance they have of spotting anything that exists. Likewise, the better look they get, the more confidently they can rule out the possibility of any tumor being present.
Some contemporary hygiene products can lessen the clarity of that view. Deodorant with aluminum oxide (a common ingredient), sunscreen, skin ointments and other substances may obscure the view by absorbing some of the x-ray energy. Take a good shower the day of the test, but otherwise leave off any powders, creams, lotions, sprays or other product.
As part of the test, physicians will sometimes perform a manual exam similar to a breast self-exam. They’ll be looking for much the same thing as you would. Though they can’t know your body history as intimately as you, they are skilled at detecting subtle thickening, lumps and other indicators.
In the mammogram and the exam they’ll be looking for hardened cell clumps, which are often immobile and irregular in shape. Soft, mobile lumps may be nothing more than a benign, fluid-filled cyst.
When the patient desires it, usually when the insurance company is willing to cover the expense or there is good reason for extra tests, other procedures can supplement the mammogram. Ultrasound, for example, is becoming more common. They are limited in their ability to detect very early cancer development, but so is a mammogram.
More sophisticated tests have been developed, such as the QM-MSP (quantitative multiplex methylation-specific PCR), that can detect cancer growths as small as a clump of 50 cells with high reliability. As time progresses, such accurate tests will move into the mainstream. In the interim, a mammogram continues to be a good tool for providing peace of mind to the overwhelming majority of women.