A mammogram is one of the most important health examinations a woman can receive as she gets older. But if you’re still asking, “What is a mammogram?”, you’re not alone. When the majority of people hear the word “mammogram,” they know that it involves breast cancer screening, but very few people actually know what a mammogram entails.

What is a Mammogram?

Jennifer Harvey, M.D., director of breast imaging at the University of Virginia, accurately defined mammography on ABC News:

“A mammogram is two X-rays of each breast. We put the breast in compression. So, we compress the breast from top to bottom, and then from the sides. And then we give a very small X-ray dose to the breast, and those X-rays are detected either by film or a digital detector to make an X-ray picture of the breast.”

What is a MammogramA mammogram is not an X-ray, but rather a collection of X-rays. The purpose of a mammogram is to find any irregularities in the breast. It detects and evaluates breast changes, and when such changes are found, a medical professional can look deeper and determine whether there may be a problem.

X-Rays Used in Mammography

Mammography doesn’t involve the use of standard medical X-ray machines, like those used for general chest x-rays. Mammograms are conducted using specialized X-ray machines, which produce lower-energy X-rays. The rays do not penetrate as deeply into the tissue, resulting in greater image contrast. In the past, mammograms exposed women to much greater levels of radiation, but mammography has evolved considerably since the late 1960s, when breast imaging machines first became available.

The Importance of Getting a Mammogram

Breast changes commonly occur in women, but the majorityof these changes are benign, or non-cancerous. A mammogram helps doctors to determine potentially troubling abnormalities that may not be caught by a physical breast examination, or to more closely examine lumps and other physical issues that arise during a physical exam.

When the mammogram is completed a radiologist reviews the results. The radiologist determines the nature of the problem or abnormality, if any such issue presents itself. While regular self-exams are important, as you can uncover irregularities by conducting a regular self-breast exam, they should not be used as a substitute for mammograms. Remember, not all breast problems can be physically seen or felt.

Different Types of Mammograms

There are two main types of mammograms: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. A screening mammogram is a routine mammogram, used for women who otherwise have no symptoms of breast cancer. A diagnostic mammogram is used specifically to check for breast cancer after a lump or other abnormality is found. A diagnostic mammogram involves X-rays taken from more angles.

In some cases, patients may require additional diagnostic imaging, such as a MRI, in order to gain a better assessment of breast health. Your doctor can help you to determine the best course of action for you, based on the results of your initial mammogram or existing symptoms.

When Should I Get a Mammogram?

The American Cancer Society recommends that women over age 40 receive a mammogram every year. Women with a family history of breast cancer may benefit from earlier mammograms. Talk to a breast-dedicated specialist to learn more about your options, or to set up a mammogram for yourself. San Fernando Valley Imaging centers connect patients to some of the most qualified breast-dedicated doctors in the country. Call us today at 310.854.7722.