There are many times when you know exactly what’s needed. Maybe you were able to help your child with homework, or perhaps you had important insight on a project at work. But sometimes you may need more information on an important issue like how to determine whether your breasts are healthy.

If you’re not (yet) familiar with mammograms, we can help. We answer questions, including what mammograms are, what they cost, why you need one and how to get one.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a procedure that uses X-rays to see the inside of your breasts. Screening 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%.

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.

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.

Screening mammograms vs. diagnostic mammograms

Breast cancer screening mammogram

Annual mammograms usually involve a screening mammogram. This preventive health tool is the most common breast cancer screening tool and is used when the patient has no breast cancer symptoms.

Diagnostic mammogram

Diagnostic mammograms are performed when we see an area of concern on a screening mammogram or when a patient 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

2D mammograms

2D mammogram machines take digital pictures of your breasts from the top and side. They have been used to find breast cancer since the 1960s and are the most widely available.

3D mammograms

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 over your breast to take images of your breast in layers. The machine then puts together all the pictures to create a three-dimensional image of your breast which can provide additional information to your doctor.

How accurate are mammograms?

Mammograms are the best tool to find breast cancer early. Still, some women may need more tests in addition to screening mammograms.

At what age should you get a mammogram?

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 at one of our Breast Centers. 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.

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.

Are mammograms painful?

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. 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 this is your first time, learn more about how to prepare for a mammogram.

How much does a mammogram cost?

Mammogram costs vary depending on 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.

It is 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. Check with your health insurance company about what’s covered before scheduling your appointment.

Do you have HealthPartners Insurance?

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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.

What if I don’t have time for a mammogram?

Mammograms are easier and faster than you might think. In most cases, the whole process will only take about 20 minutes, and 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. 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.