What to Expect When You Have a Mammogram

Have you had a mammogram yet? The recommendations on when to start having mammograms differ from doctor to doctor; please ask your doctor when the time is right for your first mammogram. I have had many mammograms since I first found a lump in my left breast and was diagnosed with breast cancer; the following information is based on my own experiences while having a mammogram. Your experience may differ from mine.

What to expect when you have a mammogram


First things first: Once you and your doctor decide it is the right time to have a mammogram, you will need a doctor’s order. This is basically a prescription for a mammogram. You also may need a referral for a mammogram from your insurance company. If you are going to a new place for your mammogram for a second opinion or because you have moved, you will want to obtain your original mammogram films and bring them with you.

If you are worried about the mammogram being painful and are premenopausal, try to schedule it the week after your period. Your breasts are less tender during that time.

On the actual day of your mammogram, don’t wear deodorant or lotion on your breasts. Deodorant can show up on the mammogram, which is something you definitely don’t want! If you forget and wear deodorant that day, ask the technologist for a wipe when she gives you a gown.

Upon Your Arrival

Registration will vary from place to place. I used to go to an off-site mammography center, and now I go to the Breast Center that is part of my local hospital. I check in and show them my driver’s license and insurance card, along with my doctor’s order. They give me an identification bracelet to wear. I then catch up on the latest Jan. 2005 issues of People magazine. I’m definitely Team Aniston!

Your mammography technologist will take you back to a dressing room, where you will undress from the waist up and put on a hospital gown, opening in the front. The place where I go has lockers for my belongings. You will then sit in another waiting room, see the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog on the coffee table, snort in disbelief, and wonder who in their right mind put that catalog there. Too late, you realize that you should have brought something from home to read.

The Actual Mammogram

Your technologist will come to the waiting room and escort you to the mammography room. Have a seat! Your technologist may ask you questions about your family history of breast cancer. If you have any family members who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, she will also ask you what age they were when they were diagnosed.

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting anxiously for…squishy time!

If you are having an x-ray mammogram with actual x-ray films, the technologist will stick a small, rubber ring with little lead dot in it on each of your nipples. She may also put a ring around any significant moles you have on your breasts. If it is a digital mammogram, the rings may not be necessary.

The technologist will show you exactly where to stand in front of the mammography machine. You will take one arm completely out of your gown, and the technologist will place your breast on a small platform, apologize for her cold hands, and arrange your arms and shoulders so that they don’t get in the way. She will then lower another platform and apologize for the pressure. I always say “Don’t worry!” I want to be squeezed tight so that she can get the best picture possible.

She will leave your side and go behind a screen. You need to hold your breath and stay very still for the actual mammogram, which is only a few seconds long. The technologist will take two pictures of your breast; one from the top and bottom of your breast, and a side view of your breast. If you have a worrisome spot that the doctor wants a closer look at, she will take a smaller paddle to compress the spot that needs a closer look. The process is then repeated on the other breast.

After Your Mammogram

If your mammogram is done with x-ray films, you may have to wait in the waiting room a little longer while the technologist checks the films to make sure they show a nice, clear picture of your breasts. If your mammogram is digital, she will be able to see it on the computer as the mammogram is being done.

Your technologist will not be able to discuss the results of your mammogram with you. Your mammogram will be read by a radiologist, who will then send a report to your doctor. Your doctor will call you if you need another mammogram or if there is something suspicious. If you are nervous about the results, call your doctor’s office to ask about them.

If there is nothing suspicious, my breast center sends me a letter in the mail about a week later, telling me that the results are normal.

I have been called back to have another mammogram because the results were not clear. Don’t panic if this happens to you, especially if you are premenopausal! Breast tissue can be denser in some spots than others, and the radiologist may want another picture of a section of your breast. When I was called back, the radiologist had found a particularly dense spot. Now they have a record of that dense spot. A mammogram is like a map of your breasts, which is why having a baseline mammogram is a good thing.

Mammograms can be a little uncomfortable, but they are really not that bad. They can be nerve-wracking — no one wants to find out that they may have a serious disease. However, a mammogram can be a very useful tool in finding breast cancer even before it grows into a lump you can feel…and isn’t that when you most want to find it?

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5 Replies to “What to Expect When You Have a Mammogram”

  1. I haven't had a mammogram yet, I don't think they start screening until I am around fifty and since there's no history of breast cancer in my family…I have been screened for another cancer though for which they use the cervical smear. That was very uncomfortable and the trainee assistant was quickly replaced by the proper assistant to get some sort of a result (good by the way). I think the cancer they screen for in the case is cervical cancer or ovarian cancer, they do that every five years from the age of thirty in the Netherlands.

  2. Thanks, Ginny, for this information!I had an ultrasound of my breast a few years back (it was fine, thank goodness!), but I haven't had a mammogram yet. This is good to know for when the time comes!

  3. When I had my mammogram, I was surprised at how really matter-of-fact the whole thing was! There seems to be so much hype about the discomfort of the procedure, but I did not find that to be the case at all! We're over the hump…only 14 more days to go!

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