Understanding Mammograms 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month
This past month, the daughter of a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer told me that “I believe that my mom’s survival was because she was diagnosed very early.  She was always really good about getting her mammogram and thanks to that, they found it and were able to treat it successfully.”


For those of us who deal with breast cancer patients every day, we know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. In honor of our latest breast cancer survivor, we offer this information on understanding mammograms. 


What is a mammogram? A mammogram is a safe, low-dose x-ray exam of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal.


A mammogram allows a closer look for changes in breast tissue that cannot be felt during a breast exam. It is used for women who have no breast complaints and for women who have breast symptoms, such as a change in the shape or size of a breast, a lump, nipple discharge, or pain. Breast changes occur in almost all women. In fact, most of these changes are not cancer and are called “benign,” but only a doctor can know for sure. Breast changes can also happen monthly, due to your menstrual period.


Why should I get a mammogram? Regular mammograms are the best tests to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to 3 years before it can be felt. When cancer is found early, many women go on to live long and healthy lives.


When should I get a mammogram? Most women should get their first test at age 40 and then have another one every 1-2 years (recommended by the National Cancer Institute). If you have a family history of breast cancer, your healthcare provider may recommend a mammogram before that age.


What happens if my mammogram is abnormal? Do not panic. An abnormal result does not always mean that there is cancer. But additional testing and exams will need to be done. You may also be referred to a breast specialist or a surgeon.  This does not mean you have cancer or need surgery. These doctors are experts in diagnosing breast problems.
When will I get the results of my mammogram? Usually the results are available within a few weeks, although it could depend on the imaging facility. A radiologist reads the test and then reports the results. Contact your healthcare provider or the testing facility if you do not receive a report of your results within 30 days. No news is NOT necessarily good news. It’s simply NO news.


Tips for getting a mammogram:
  • Try not to have your test the week before you get your period or during your period. Your breasts may be tender or swollen and not only will the study hurt much more (trust us), it may affect the images, too.
  • On the day of your test, do not wear deodorant, perfume or powder. These products can show up as white spots on the mammogram.
  • Consider your outfit. You will need to undress from your waist up for the test so choose an outfit that is comfortable and easy to change into.
  • Adjust your attitude. You’re doing this for your health. It’s a necessary test. No woman likes getting her breast tissue squeezed into a vice grip. (By the way, my favorite comment is when the technician says, “Don’t breathe” and I think to myself, “Like I COULD!”)


By all means, stay on top of your breast health by not only getting regular mammograms, but by performing monthly breast self-exams.  And talk openly with your healthcare provider about any questions or concerns you have. Remember, it is YOUR body! Be responsible to take care of it.


For additional information about mammograms, we invite you to visit the National Cancer Institute’s webpage at http://www.cancer.gov/


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About Betty Long, RN

As a registered nurse working in greater Philadelphia-area hospitals over the past 27 years, Betty Long’s experiences as a nurse and manager proved to her that maneuvering through today’s healthcare system can be daunting, especially when you don’t have someone to help you navigate the system. Care decisions, insurance decisions and coordination of treatment services can overwhelm even the savviest consumer. Those experiences, and other more personal experiences, led Long to launch Guardian Nurses Healthcare Advocates in October 2003. Guardian Nurses provides advocacy services for clients, both private and corporate, all over the United States. The driving mission for its nurse advocates is simple: to act as representatives and advocate for their patients. And since nurse advocates work independently of hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and government agencies, they can be a strong voice for patients in all areas of the healthcare system. Nurse advocates understand healthcare issues from the viewpoint of caring for the patient and of the medical professionals trying to provide care. Nationally, Long’s advocacy work has been featured on The Dr Oz Show and National Public Radio’s Marketplace and Marketplace Money shows and various print publications. www.GuardianNurses.com

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