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What a mammogram is

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can help to detect breast cancer early as part of a breast cancer screening programme.

How you have a mammogram

A radiographer helps you to position one breast at a time between 2 flat plates on the X-ray machine. The plates press your breast firmly between them for a few moments to take the X-ray. You have 2 X-rays of each breast. The compression of the breast helps to give a clear picture. Having a mammogram can be uncomfortable. Some people find it painful. But the discomfort only lasts for the short time that your breast is compressed.

After the mammogram

Two specialists look at your mammogram to see if there are any signs of cancer. Around 96 out of 100 women (96%) have a normal result. Some women have an unclear result and may need to have the mammogram again. 

Screening can find very early changes in the lining of the breast ducts called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). If you have these you usually have surgery to remove them. 

If the screening finds a cancer it is usually at a early stage when there is a good chance of successful treatment. Your GP will the refer you to a specialist breast clinic for further tests and treatment.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About breast cancer section.

 

 

What a mammogram is

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can help to detect breast cancer early as part of a breast cancer screening programme.

You can read about breast cancer screening in the UK.

 

Having a mammogram

A radiographer helps you to position one breast at a time between two small flat plates on the X-ray machine. The plates then press your breast firmly between them for a few moments, to take the X-ray. The compression of the breast helps to give a clear picture. 

You have 2 X-rays of each breast – one from above and one from the side.

View a transcript for the video about having a mammogram.

 

How a mammogram feels

Some women worry about whether a mammogram will hurt. For most women it is just a bit uncomfortable. Some women do feel some pain, but it is usually only for a few moments while you are having the X-rays taken. Some women may have discomfort or soreness for a few days afterwards.

A Cochrane review reported that having good information before the test and having control over your breast compression during your mammogram reduces pain. Taking aspirin or paracetamol before the procedure didn't help. If you would like to, you can read this review on pain in mammography in the Cochrane Library. It is written for researchers and specialists and so uses complex language.

 

After the mammogram

Two people called film readers or image readers look at your mammogram to see if there are any signs of cancer. The film readers are radiologists or radiographers

You should get your results within 14 days. The radiographer will tell you when to expect yours. If the X-ray is not clear enough or shows any abnormal areas, the clinic staff will call you back for more tests. You may need to have the X-rays taken again.

 

What a mammogram can show

Well developed breast cancers nearly always show up clearly on mammograms.

Image of a mammogram

But no screening test is perfect and unfortunately there will always be some cancers that are missed or do not show up.

With early stage breast cancer, there may be no lump, but your mammogram may show small areas of calcium in particular patterns within the breast tissue. These areas of calcium are called calcification. But calcification can also sometimes occur due to non cancerous changes in the breast. The skill and experience of the technicians and doctors helps them to read the different patterns and decide which might be due to cancer and so need further tests.

Some cancers do not show these clear signs on the mammogram. So, if you find any suspicious lump in your breast, always tell your doctor, even if you recently had a mammogram.

 

If screening finds early cell changes - DCIS

Your screening mammogram may show early changes in the lining of the breast ducts called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). The breast cancer cells are only inside the ducts of the breast. The ducts are the tubes that carry milk within the breast. In some women DCIS may spread into the surrounding breast tissue after some years, to become an invasive ductal breast cancer.

Diagram showing ductal cancer in situ (DCIS)

Your doctor will usually recommend that you have the area of DCIS removed with surgery. There is very little risk of low grade or intermediate grade DCIS coming back once it has been removed with surgery. But if you have high grade DCIS you may need further treatment. 

You can read about treatments on our page about DCIS.

 

If screening finds a cancer

If the screening shows that you have cancer it is likely to have been found early and have a good chance of successful treatment. 

You can find out about breast cancer treatments.

 

More about mammograms in breast screening

You can find detailed information about mammograms and the UK breast screening programme on the NHS breast screening programme (NHSBSP) website

There are various information resources in different formats and different languages. You can find audio and video resources as well as information and instruction leaflets.

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Updated: 21 November 2014