In a screening mammogram, two standard views of each breast are taken to detect lumps too small or too deep to feel. During the procedure, an X-ray machine sends a small amount of radiation through your breasts to produce images that are later examined by a fellowship-trained, board-certified breast imaging radiologist.

If you are age 40 or older, you do not need a physician's order for an annual screening mammogram.

Diagnostic mammograms

A diagnostic mammogram is performed if there is a symptom, family history or a finding on a screening mammogram. The goal is to use extra views to pinpoint the exact size and location of a breast abnormality and to image the surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. Diagnostic mammograms do require a physician's referral.

In many cases, diagnostic mammography will help indicate if the abnormality is benign (non-cancerous). However, if an abnormality is suspicious, additional breast imaging—such as a breast MRI or breast ultrasound—or a biopsy may be ordered. A biopsy is the only definitive way to determine whether a person has breast cancer.

On the day of your mammogram

  • Wear a two-piece outfit since you’ll need to remove your top for the test.
  • Do not use deodorant, perfume, powder, creams or lotions on your breast or underarm area. Residue from the products may interfere with mammogram results.
  • Plan to arrive 15 minutes prior to your scheduled appointment time.
  • Bring your most recent previous mammogram to your appointment for comparison with new pictures, as the radiologist looks for changes in breast tissue.
  • Tell the technologist if you have implants or any pain, lumps or nipple discharge.
  • Depending on the view of your breast to be taken, you will be asked to sit or stand. Some women may experience slight discomfort, but the procedure is not harmful and will not damage breast tissue.

If your breast exam results in a diagnosis that requires treatment, Northwestern Medicine offers comprehensive care and support to help you achieve the best outcome. You’ll have services to help you heal in body, mind and spirit.

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