Breast imaging

Screening Mammography Frequently Asked Questions

A mammogram can save your life. A mammogram can find cancer early and reduce your risk of dying from the disease. Many women have heard about mammograms from family or friends. But don’t worry about getting a mammogram - it is fast, and the discomfort is minimal.

What to expect during a screening mammogram:

  • Your mammogram appointment will take approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

  • A specially trained radiology technologist will take the images. She will place each breast between two smooth flat plates and apply gentle but firm compression.

  • For some patients, the compression may be slightly uncomfortable, but it is necessary to get the highest quality pictures.

  • Compression will last for less than 15–20 seconds.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an image of the breast tissue made by using special, low dose x-ray equipment. UW Health uses only digital equipment for performing mammograms. Digital technology offers the best quality scans, which are then reviewed on a computer monitor.

Do you have digital breast tomosynthesis (3-D mammography)?

All UW Health sites in the Madison area offer digital breast tomosynthesis, sometimes called 3-D mammography.

When should I get a mammogram?

UW Health has established the following minimum guidelines for women at average risk:

Screening mammography

A screening mammogram is used to detect breast changes in patients who do not have signs or symptoms of breast cancer. Screening mammograms are proven to detect breast cancer early, when it is most treatable, and save lives. We use digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) at all UW Health locations. All women should talk to their doctor about when to have their first mammogram, especially if they are at high risk for breast cancer.

A radiology technologist specially trained in mammography takes mammogram images of your breasts. The technologist places each breast between two smooth flat plates. The plates gently compress the breast to get the highest quality images. The pressure might be slightly uncomfortable. Compression is brief, but important.

A radiologist views and interprets your breast images on specialized computer monitors.

At UW Health, we recommend these guidelines if you are at average risk for breast cancer. If you think you might be at high risk for developing breast cancer, please contact our PATHS clinic.

Age 40-49: Talk with your doctor at age 40. Understand your breast cancer risks. Know your preferences for breast cancer screening. Consider a screening mammogram every one to two years.

Age 50-74: Get a screening mammogram every one to two years.

Age 75 and older: Consider a screening mammogram every one to two years, based on your doctor’s recommendations.

What if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, please review our recommendations for expecting and nursing mothers.

How do I schedule a screening mammogram?

You may schedule a screening mammogram through your primary care physician, MyChart or by calling one of our clinics.

Preparing for your mammogram

On the day of your mammogram, do not wear deodorant, perfume, powders, ointment or glitter lotion of any sort in your underarm areas or on your breasts. Some of these products might create spots that look like abnormalities on the mammogram images.

After your mammogram

The person who reads your mammogram is a radiologist (a physician trained in reading imaging tests).

The radiologist looks for different types of breast changes like small white spots called calcifications, or lumps and tumors known as masses. They will review any suspicious areas that could be signs of cancer. In general, the images will be read within a few days and a report will be sent to your health care provider. You will also receive a letter in the mail to inform you of the results.

What is a 'false positive?'

Mammograms are important, but not perfect. There is the chance that from your screening mammography you will be asked to return for further evaluation of an area that turns out to not be cancer. This is a "false positive." It occurs in fewer than 10 percent of women who are screened and in most cases can be resolved with additional mammogram images and sometimes a breast ultrasound.

What is a 'false negative?'

Mammograms find most but not all breast cancers. The chance of a "false negative" is affected by several factors, including the amount of fibroglandular or "dense" breast tissue on mammograms.

What if I'm called back for additional tests?

If something looks possibly suspicious on your screening mammogram, you will be called back for a closer look. Most often when patients are asked to return, the radiologist finds there was overlapping tissue on the screening mammogram, or there is a finding that is not cancer (such as a cyst). However, some patients will have a finding that requires a biopsy, which can determine if cancer is present. Coming back for diagnostic mammogram images is common, even for women who have healthy breasts.

If you are asked to have diagnostic mammogram pictures following a screening mammogram, a UW Health staff member will contact you to schedule the appropriate appointments.