Chances are you’ve heard regular mammograms to screen for breast cancer are really important. But something might be holding you back from making that appointment.
Maybe you think your home or work schedule is too busy to fit in a mammogram right now. Perhaps you just keep forgetting to get it scheduled. Or maybe you need more information before you feel comfortable or compelled.
We know that some people find mammograms scary, awkward or even embarrassing for a variety of reasons. Some think they don’t need one because they’re healthy, while others might have concerns or heard inaccurate information about the costs, safety, discomfort or what the screening results may reveal.
Below, we cover what mammograms are, why they’re important and the different types, as well as breast cancer screening guidelines and answers to a lot of common questions.
What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is type of breast exam that uses X-rays to see the inside of your breasts. Breasts are made up of multiple layers of tissue and a mammogram captures images of these layers to help detect potentially cancerous tissues.
Why are mammograms important?
One in 8 women will get a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. And when used as a preventive breast cancer screening tool, mammograms allow doctors to find breast cancers when they are still small, even in women who have no symptoms of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early, and is in the localized stage, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99%.
Are mammograms safe?
Yes. Although mammograms use X-rays, breast tissue is only exposed to very low doses of radiation. Best practices say that the benefits of getting mammograms far exceed the risk of having them. But it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor about what's best for you.
Do mammograms hurt?
While everyone feels pain differently, mammograms only cause temporary discomfort. Compression of the breast tissue is needed to get the highest-quality image but is not harmful for your breast. It’s also important to know that the mammogram itself lasts for just 5-10 minutes, so any discomfort will come and go fairly quickly.
You may consider taking an over-the-counter pain medication like aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen an hour before your appointment if you’re worried about feeling uncomfortable.
If you’re scheduling your first screening, learn more about how to prepare for a mammogram.
How is a mammogram done?
You’ll stand in front of a mammogram machine, which will take pictures of each breast from two different views, the top and the side. Your breast will be put between two plates and compressed. You’ll feel pressure for just a few seconds until the image appears for the technologist.
While your mammogram appointment may last a total of 30 minutes or less, the mammogram itself lasts just 5-10 minutes.
What are doctors looking for during a mammogram?
A radiologist (a doctor specially trained in medical imaging) will look for signs that could indicate cancer in your breast such as masses, certain arrangements of calcium deposits, and changes in the shape of your tissue. Prior mammograms are helpful for comparison and can provide a more accurate reading, which is one of the many reasons why mammogram screenings are recommended on a regular basis.
Types of mammograms
The process of getting a mammogram is usually the same, but there are different types of mammograms and mammogram machines. The type used at your exam will depend on your clinic, your insurance and your symptoms, if any exist.
Breast cancer screening mammograms vs. diagnostic mammograms
Breast cancer screening mammogram
When most people think about mammograms, they think about screening mammograms – a preventive health tool that’s the most common breast cancer screening method and is used when the person has no breast cancer symptoms.
Diagnostic mammograms are performed when a radiologist sees an area of concern on a screening mammogram or when a person has symptoms that need closer imaging evaluation. Symptoms may include a lump or breast discharge. You’ll typically get your results before you leave.
2D vs. 3D mammograms
All mammograms use X-ray technology to capture breast images, and there are two types of X-ray imaging that are used today – 2D and 3D. Both 2D and 3D mammograms are used for cancer screening and detection, and require about the same amount of time. The primary difference between 2D and 3D mammography is the type of mammogram image they create.
2D mammograms have been used to find breast cancer since the 1960s and are the most widely available. 2D mammography machines take digital pictures of your breasts from the top and side to generate flat images that don’t distinguish between the multiple layers of breast tissue.
3D mammograms, also called breast tomosynthesis or tomo, is a newer technology. While taking X-ray images from the top and the sides, the machine moves in an arc motion (like a rainbow) over your breast to take multiple images of your breast tissue layers. The images are then digitally layered over each other to create a detailed three-dimensional image of your breast, which can provide additional information to your doctor.
When a 2D vs. 3D mammography may be recommended for breast cancer screenings
2D mammograms have been the standard breast cancer screening method for many years. Generally, 2D is considered sufficient for those of average risk for breast cancer. But 3D mammograms are often recommended for those who have dense breast tissue or other risk factors for developing breast cancer.
Specifically for those with dense breast tissue, 2D imagery can sometimes make detection more difficult since the mammogram shows all the overlapping layers as a single image. But a 3D image can help radiologists better assess the health of the breast tissue since they can review the images as distinct layers, which can help improve the accuracy of breast cancer detection and diagnosis.
3D mammography has the potential to improve cancer detection and decrease the number of false positive screening exams, no matter your breast density. But those with dense breasts or known to be at higher risk for breast cancer can benefit the most from 3D mammography.
However, if getting a 3D mammogram is a financial burden, 2D mammograms are still a great option that you can be confident in. (Below, we talk more about what affects the costs of mammograms.)
Breast cancer screening guidelines
Generally speaking, the timing and frequency of mammogram screenings will depend on a range of factors, including your medical history, whether you have a family history of breast cancer, your breast density and more. But there are some important guidelines and recommendations to keep in mind.
What age should you get a mammogram screening?
Once you’ve turned 40, we recommend talking to your doctor about when to start screening mammograms. If you’re younger and concerned about your risks of getting breast cancer, ask your doctor about getting a risk assessment. For example, HealthPartners breast centers offer risk assessments. In some cases, some women may begin screening prior to age 40.
How often should you get a mammogram?
Once you and your doctor decide to begin mammograms, they typically happen every 1-2 years.
Keeping up with your mammograms is very important regardless of your history because more than 80% of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
How accurate are mammograms?
Mammograms are the best tool to find breast cancer early. Still, some women may need more breast exams and tests in addition to screening mammograms.
Can you get a mammogram with breast implants?
Yes, you can and you should get regular mammogram screenings as recommended if you breast implants. Just make sure to tell the mammography technologist before the screening begins.
If you had a bilateral mastectomy to remove your breasts before getting implants, you do not need to get a mammogram since there isn’t any breast tissue left.
Can you get a mammogram while pregnant?
Yes, mammograms can be done during pregnancy. In fact, regular screening mammograms should continue on your normal schedule during pregnancy. Low radiation levels are generally considered safe for you and your baby during pregnancy.
Can you get a mammogram while breastfeeding or lactating?
Yes, mammograms can be done when you’re breastfeeding or lactating, and it’s recommended that screenings continue on your normal schedule. It’s just suggested that you empty your breast right before your mammogram for the most accurate results.
Also, X-rays do not affect human milk. So if you do need a mammogram while breastfeeding or lactating, it’s safe to nurse or feed your child expressed milk immediately after the imaging is complete.
How much a mammogram costs
Mammogram costs vary depending on your insurance coverage and whether they are screening mammograms or diagnostic mammograms.
Are screening mammograms covered by insurance?
Most health insurance plans, including Medicare, cover 2D mammograms for breast cancer screening at 100%, so there’s no cost to you. Many plans also cover 3D mammography.
But before you make a mammogram appointment, it’s always a good idea to check with your health insurance company about your coverage for screening mammograms and how often you can get one. For example, do your exams need to be at least 12 months apart or can you get one anytime during the calendar year.
Are diagnostic mammograms covered by insurance?
Diagnostic mammograms are not considered preventive and are billed differently than screening mammograms. You’ll likely have some out-of-pocket costs, which can vary based on whether you have a 2D or a 3D mammogram. Again, check with your health insurance company about what’s covered before scheduling your appointment.
If you have HealthPartners insurance, you can use our Know Your Cost service, which provides personalized cost information and estimates for health care services. Just call 844-997-2678.
How much does a mammogram cost without insurance?
If you don’t have insurance, screening mammogram costs can vary based on your state, where you go for care and if you choose 2D or 3D mammography.
The good news is that, under the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP), you may be eligible for a no- or low-cost screening if you are between the ages of 40 and 64, do not have insurance coverage for screening exams and meet specific income criteria. To find out if you’re eligible, call the local NBCCEDP program for your state:
You may also be eligible for Medicaid. To learn more, visit the Medicaid website.
Fast. Easy. Worth it. Mammograms.
Mammograms are easier and faster than you might think. As we mentioned, the whole process will only take about 30 minutes or less, with the mammogram itself lasting just 5-10 minutes. If you have a breast cancer screening mammogram, you can expect to get results within a few days of the test. If you had a diagnostic mammogram, you’ll get your results before you leave your appointment.
HealthPartners and Park Nicollet has over 30 locations for mammograms throughout the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin – which means there’s a good chance that you could get your screening at your usual clinic location. So if you’re scheduling your yearly checkup and are due for a mammogram, see if you can have both at the same location on the same day.
We also offer walk-in mammograms at many locations, so you can stop in when you have extra time or are at your annual checkup. Walk-in availability depends on the number of scheduled appointments at the time of your arrival, so you can also look at same-day mammogram appointment openings online. Mammograms are also available via our Mammo a-go-go mobile mammography unit, which travels to many clinic locations throughout the Twin Cities.
Mammograms are the best way to prevent breast cancer or find it early. So make it a priority to get screened.