This test saves lives, but it’s normal to be anxious before your first one.
Starting at age 45, women with an average risk of breast cancer are recommended to start something they’ve never done before: mammograms. This breast test can help detect breast cancer early—before lumps or breast cancer symptoms appear—so it can be a life-saving appointment. Catching breast cancer early can improve your treatment outcome and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.
While it’s a simple test, there are a few things you should know beforehand that will make your first mammogram less intimidating (and even more accurate).
1. Skip dresses and overalls; opt for a two-piece outfit.
“Patients should expect to be completely undressed from the waist up with a robe that opens in the front for easy access,” says Stephen Rose, MD, director of clinical research at Solis Mammography.
Being undressed from the waist up will be a lot easier if you are wearing a two-piece outfit and can simply remove your top, leaving your pants or skirt on. (Of course, it’s not the end of the world if you forget and wear a dress.)
Ease of undressing is just one benefit. “Many facilities have ‘half’ or waist-length gowns, so it is best to wear a two-piece outfit,” says Louise C. Miller, a breast cancer survivor, mammography educator, and patient advocate for the National Mammography Quality Assurance Advisory.
2. Skip the deodorant.
It sounds strange, but your doctors want you to wait until after your mammogram before swiping on your deodorant for the day. That’s because antiperspirants contain aluminum-based substances that can show up as white spots on the X-ray, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Those spots can mimic cancerous abnormalities on the image and mess up interpretations, “especially at certain angles of the breast where a portion of the armpit may be captured in the image,” says Dr. Rose.
BTW, if you heard a rumor that deodorant *causes* breast cancer, you can safely let that myth go. Here are other things that probably don’t increase your risk of breast cancer.
3. It might hurt—but only for a few seconds.
“Getting a mammogram shouldn’t be extremely painful, but women can feel some pain or discomfort—or sometimes nothing at all—due to a number of factors,” says Dr. Rose. Those factors include positioning for the mammogram and where you are in your menstrual cycle.
Here’s what goes down: You’ll stand right up next to the X-ray machine. Your technologist will help position on your breasts on one plate of the machine, and then another plate will lower slowly and compress the breasts. The flattened breasts help get a high-quality image to improve the interpretation, according to ACS.
If the thought of “flattened breasts” fills you with anxiety, don’t worry: The actual compression only lasts a few seconds. Plus, it shouldn’t actually be painful, if your technologist set you up correctly. “If the patient is experiencing pain she should let the technologist know. The machine and/or patient and breast can be repositioned to minimize discomfort,” says Miller.
You may have also heard a rumor that smaller boobs = greater pain. This isn’t necessarily the case, according to Dr. Rose. However, one thing to consider is if your breasts get more tender during certain parts of your menstrual cycle. (Plus, the swelling can also affect the X-ray image, according to ACS.) “Try to schedule [your] appointment during a time when [you] have a more comfortable baseline feeling,” says Dr. Rose.
After your first mammogram, stick with the recommended schedule: The ACS recommends getting a mammogram once a year starting at age 45 (although your risk factors for breast cancer may impact your screening needs). Here are other tests women need in their forties.
American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on February 15, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/healthy/find-cancer-early/cancer-screening-guidelines/american-cancer-society-guidelines-for-the-early-detection-of-cancer.html.)
Frequently asked questions: mammograms. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Medicine. (Accessed on February 15, 2019 at https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/breast_health/frequently_asked_questions_mammograms_85,P00140.)
Mammograms: what to know before you go. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on February 15, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection/mammograms/mammograms-what-to-know-before-you-go.html.)
Mesurolle B, Ceccarelli J, Karp I, Sun S, El-Khoury M. Effects of antiperspirant aluminum percent composition and mode of application on mock microcalcifications in mammography. Eur J Radiol. 2014 Feb;83(2):279-82.