Mammograms: What Doctors Want You to Know
by Dr. Denice Logan, Medical Director at BCBSM
| 5 min read
There’s a one in eight chance that a woman in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Mammograms are one of our best tools to help women for early detection or avoid breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women, though death rates have been decreasing in older women – thanks in part to earlier detection and better treatment options. Mammograms have been used for the past 30 years to screen for breast cancer. Newer digital mammography technologies when indicated, have improved imaging, especially for younger women and women with dense breast tissue.
Here are some mammography basics. It’s best to have a conversation with your doctor about when to start mammography screening, based on your personal health and family health history.
What is a mammogram?
Mammograms, also called mammography exams, are X-ray pictures of the breast that are used to look for early signs of breast cancer, as well as any changes in your breast tissue. Screening mammograms typically involve two X-rays of each breast.
It’s done using a special machine that compresses the breast between two plates. It’s best to wear a two-piece outfit when you get a mammogram, as you’ll have to undress from the waist up.
What is a diagnostic mammogram?
Mammograms can be done for two reasons: to screen for issues in people with no signs or symptoms, or to investigate any observed issues or masses detected after you have informed your physician of the findings.
A diagnostic mammogram seeks to investigate any noticed changes in the breast – including lumps, pain, changes to the skin or nipple discharge or thickening. Diagnostic mammograms can be done to follow up on a screening mammogram, and usually includes additional images to help health care professionals detect what’s happening.
What do mammograms show?
Mammograms can show abnormalities in the breast tissue to allow doctors to order further investigatory testes or biopsies if needed. They can show cysts and tumors before they are able to be felt through an exam, as well as something you or your physician didn’t detect.
While mammograms can’t be used to diagnose cancer, they can prompt a doctor to order a biopsy of any abnormal area detected. Biopsies can be done through a needle or through surgery and are used to make a cancer diagnosis.
Do mammograms hurt?
Mammograms can be uncomfortable and painful for some women, as breasts must be pressed between two plates to get an X-ray image. For women, it’s best to avoid getting a mammogram the week before your period or during your period, as your breasts may be already tender and sore during those times.
Where can I get a mammogram?
There are many options to choose from to get a mammogram. There are freestanding diagnostic centers, mobile units and hospital settings that all provide this service. Look for a facility accredited by the American College of Radiology (ACR). If you can, consider a facility that offers multiple imaging options – including MRI and ultrasounds – in case you need to get a different look at the breast tissue. Most health plans cover mammography, but it’s good to check your coverage before making a final decision on where to get the screening done.
Do I need a prescription for a mammogram?
It depends on the facility that you get the mammogram from. Some centers will require a doctor’s order or prescription and ask that you make an appointment. Others will allow you to walk in without a doctor’s order. When in doubt, call and ask.
If you don’t have a doctor or health insurance, there may be options available in your community for a mammogram. Research what’s available to you through the local health department, local hospital, medical clinic or women’s clinic. They may be able to direct you to screening events.
Are mammogram results immediate?
Results are typically available within a few weeks. If there is any concern about the results, you’ll hear about them earlier. You’ll receive the results from the radiologist, who will also share them with your doctor.
Do I need a mammogram every year?
It depends on your age and your level of risk. Here’s what the American Cancer Society recommends for individuals at an average risk of breast cancer:
- Women between 40 and 44 should have the option to get a yearly mammogram (discuss with your doctor)
- Women from 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year
- Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or maintain their yearly screenings.
If you have a personal or family history of breast cancer, or a genetic mutation that could increase your risk, talk to your doctor about a schedule that’s right for you.
What does my insurance cover?
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or Blue Care Network plans cover many preventive care services, including mammography, when performed by in-network providers.
In fact, many of our plans cover an annual preventive mammogram at 100% when it is ordered by your doctor. To get all the information about what your plan covers and any potential out-of-pocket costs, log in to your online account at bcbsm.com and look at your Summary of Member Benefits, or call the number on the back of your ID card.
More from MIBluesPerspectives:
- Breast Cancer Survivor: Disability Insurance Helped Me Heal
- Breast Cancer Awareness: Screenings Could Save a Life
- Breast Cancer Prevention: Steps to Take Today
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