Breast cancer screening: What to expect

From the fear of being diagnosed with cancer to anticipating a painful experience, some women may have concerns about having a mammogram. Understanding the process and the importance of breast cancer screening can help to ease your mind.

Breast cancer is one of the top 5 cancers affecting women in South Africa. Mammograms can help detect breast cancer at an early stage when it is most treatable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mammograms can find signs of cancer up to three years before lumps can be felt.

Here’s what to expect and how to prepare.

Who should have a mammogram?

  • Women aged 40 to 44 should consider having a mammogram annually.
  • Women aged 45 to 54 are advised to have a mammogram annually.
  • Women who are 55 and older may continue with yearly screenings, based on their doctor’s recommendations.

It isn’t recommended for women under the age of 40 to have mammograms, but if you have an increased risk (e.g. a family history of breast cancer), talk to your doctor.

How does a mammogram work?

A mammogram may be uncomfortable, but any discomfort or pain won’t last long. Depending on the size of your breasts, the process usually takes less than 30 minutes.

If you are especially uncomfortable during the procedure, tell the radiologist. If you would be more comfortable with a female radiologist performing the procedure, you can request this.

Here’s what to expect:

  • You’ll have to undress from the waist up and will stand in front of a specialised X-ray machine.
  • A radiologist will place your breast on a plastic plate, while another plate presses it from above. Spreading your breast out will ensure the most accurate pictures.
  • You will feel pressure for a few minutes while the X-rays are being taken.
  • These steps are repeated to get different views of each breast. There are usually two views for both of them, so you’ll change positions in between X-rays.
  • Once your mammogram is completed, the radiologist will assess whether more images are necessary.
    If you have large or dense breasts, you may need to have an ultrasound too. This is not cause for concern, it’s just to ensure any abnormalities are detected.

How can you prepare?

  • If you have any concerns before your mammogram, talk to your doctor. Prepare a list and have them take you through the process.
  • Avoid scheduling your mammogram a week before your period, as your breasts may be more sensitive or swollen.
  • Since you need to undress from the waist up, consider wearing a skirt or pants and top combo.
  • Don’t wear any deodorant, perfume or powder on the day of your mammogram. These may show up as white spots on an X-ray.

What happens afterwards?

Most women don’t experience any lingering pain after the procedure. If you feel any discomfort, consult your doctor. You should receive your results within 30 days of your mammogram. The X-rays will be assessed by your doctor before any other steps are taken.

If anything abnormal is found, you may need to go for another X-ray or other tests based on your doctor’s recommendation. If nothing is found, you should still go for your next mammogram and do regular breast self-exams.

For more advice related to cancer, read these helpful articles:

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a professional. E&OE.


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