What to Expect at a Mammogram Appointment

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so now is an excellent time to remind you why it is so important to check your breasts regularly for possible signs of cancer and visit your doctor if you notice anything unusual.

Your doctor will refer you for breast screening if they have any concerns, which may be a little daunting, so let’s run through what to expect at a mammogram appointment.

Why Should I Have a Mammogram?

Anyone registered under the NHS as female, aged 50-71, will be invited to a breast screening appointment every three years. You will receive a letter in the post asking you to attend. Even if you don’t have any concerns about changes to your breasts, you should go to the appointment, as breast cancer is not always noticeable. Early diagnosis is key, with net survival for breast cancer being highest for patients diagnosed at Stage 1.

Mammograms are not just for routine screening, however. If you have concerns about changes to your breasts, don’t wait to be called for a routine appointment. Visit your GP as soon as possible and they will refer you to the specialist clinic.

Checking your breasts is easy. Touch them with the pads of your fingers, not the tips, as this will help you feel any lumps. If you have periods, it is better to do this a few days after your last period has finished, as menstruation often changes how the breasts feel to the touch. They can also feel sore when touched, which is completely normal.

Look at your breasts with your arms by your sides and above your head. This can help you see changes to the shape or skin texture.

Signs to look out for include:

  • A lump or swelling in your breast, upper chest or armpit
  • A change to the skin, such as ridges, dimples or puckering
  • Changes to the colour of your breast — it may look inflamed and red
  • Changes to the shape of the nipple(s), or if they’ve become inverted
  • A rash or sores around the nipple
  • Unusual liquid or discharge from the nipple
  • Changes in the shape or size of the breast.

What Is a Mammogram?

A mammogram usually includes four breast x-rays — two for each breast — and only takes a few minutes to complete. The breast screening appointment does not take long, around half an hour in total, which includes the specialist (Mammographer) asking questions about your health and any concerns you may have. They will also explain what the mammogram entails and what they are looking for.

How to Prepare for Your Appointment

  • Don’t wear deodorant, lotions or talcum powder products on the day of your appointment, as they can interfere with the results. Roll-on deodorant is fine.
  • Remove any jewellery you are wearing, including nipple piercings if you have them.
  • Wear trousers or a skirt as you will be asked to undress from the waist up, so it’s usually more comfortable just to take your top and bra off.
  • Make a list of any concerns you have about changes in your breasts.

What Happens at the Mammogram Appointment?

The Mammographer is a specialist who will help, explain and support you throughout the screening process.

You will be asked to undress so that you are naked from the waist up — there will be a private changing room for you, and you may be given a hospital gown if you wish to wear it.

You will then be called to the x-ray room, and the Mammographer will help position you correctly. Your breast will be squeezed between two plastic plates to keep it in place while the x-ray is taken. This can be a little uncomfortable or even painful, but any pain should disappear quickly afterwards. You will need to stay still while the x-ray is taken, but each x-ray only takes a few seconds. Tell the Mammographer if it is too uncomfortable for you and they will help reposition you, and you can ask them to stop at any time.

Once the first x-ray is taken, the machine will be tilted, and the process will be repeated on the side of your breast. Then, your other breast will need to be screened in the same way.

And that’s it! You will be asked to get dressed, and the Mammographer will advise you when to expect the results. If you are having your breast screening via the NHS, you will usually receive your results in the post within two weeks. If you have your mammogram at a private breast clinic, you can expect to get the results much quicker, usually within a few days.

What Happens Next?

You will typically receive your results through the post, which will tell you whether any signs of cancer were found during the screening. If there are no concerns, you will be invited to attend another screening in three years (if you are aged between 50-71); otherwise, you don’t need to do anything more.

Your letter may ask you to return for another screening if the first x-ray results weren’t clear, or they may invite you for further tests. If this happens, try not to panic. Additional tests are usually a precautionary measure and can include ultrasound scans, a breast examination or a biopsy with a needle. Roughly 4 out of 100 hundred women (4%) will be called back for more tests, and many of those will not have cancer.

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