Mammogram (mammography)

Low dose X-ray vital to helping detect breast cancer in its early stages.

A mammogram is a scan that uses low dose X-rays to examine the breast. It is used to help identify breast cancer in its early stages as it can find cancers that are too small to feel.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a type of X-ray scan used to screen for and diagnose breast problems, including breast cancer. It's currently the most effective way to catch breast cancer early, in some cases, up to three years before a lump can be felt. 

How often you have a mammogram to screen for breast cancer depends on your age and your risk factors for breast cancer.

If you feel a lump in your breast, it’s important to get it checked. Most are harmless, but they can be a sign of something more serious, such as breast cancer.

A referral letter from a consultant or GP is required before booking any diagnostic investigation.

When to get a mammogram

Regular breast screening is the most effective way to identify breast cancer early, which improves your chances of successful treatment and reduces your chances of needing to have your breast removed (mastectomy) or have chemotherapy.

In addition to attending your regular breast screening appointments, you should see your doctor if you have:

  • A lump in your breast or armpit
  • Any changes in your breast or armpit
  • Discharge from your nipple
  • Skin changes on your breast, including your nipple

Your doctor may recommend a mammogram after a physical examination of your breast.

Who has a mammogram?

In the UK, women aged 50 and over are offered regular breast screening. You'll be invited for your first breast screening between the ages of 50 and 53 and will continue to be offered regular breast screening up until your 71st birthday. 

If you have a high risk of developing breast cancer, you'll be invited for breast screening before age 50.

Where to get a mammogram

Almost all of our hospitals offer private mammograms. Our fast diagnostics mean you don’t have to wait long for your results. Find your nearest Spire hospital. 

Spire Manchester Hospital

How do mammogram screenings work?

A mammogram is a type of X-ray scan. A radiographer (the person who takes the images) will help place your breast between two plates on the X-ray machine. The plates are then gently but firmly compressed. X-rays are taken from different angles. This is then repeated on your other breast.

Preparing for a mammogram

Book your breast screening appointment for when your breasts are least likely to feel tender. If you haven't gone through menopause, your breasts are most likely to feel tender the week before and week of your period, so book your appointment for the week after your period. 

If you know you find the procedure uncomfortable, consider taking over-the-counter pain medication.

Before your mammogram, don't use deodorant as particles of metal used in deodorant can show up on your mammogram images.

Mammogram screening procedure

Having a mammogram is often uncomfortable and in some cases, painful due to the pressure applied on your breasts. However, the procedure is over in a few minutes. 

Pressure is needed to even out the thickness of your breast tissue, which allows X-rays to more easily pass through and also means less X-ray radiation is needed. Pressure also reduces the movement of your breast tissue so clearer images can be taken. When the images are being taken, you'll be asked to stand still and hold your breath.

Each of your breasts will have X-ray images taken from the top view and side view. The X-ray images are black and white, and will be sent to a computer screen so a doctor who specialises in interpreting X-rays (a radiologist) can examine them. They will look for signs of breast cancer or other breast conditions.

If you're younger and have more dense breast tissue, you may be offered an ultrasound scan. 

After a mammogram

After your mammogram, you may have to wait for the radiographer to check the image quality. If the images aren't clear, you may need to repeat part or all of your mammogram. Once your radiographer confirms that the images are of good enough quality, you can go home and continue with your usual activities. 

How long does a mammogram take?

A mammogram takes only a few minutes to perform but your entire appointment may take around 30 minutes. However, you may spend longer in hospital depending on: 

  • How long you need to wait in the waiting room
  • How long it takes you to complete your pre-mammogram questionnaire
  • How long it takes you to undress before your mammogram and redress afterwards
  • How long it takes the radiographer to position your breasts
  • Whether you need to have part of your mammogram repeated if the images aren’t clear enough

Mammogram results

Your radiologist will look for signs of breast cancer or other breast conditions and will send the results to the doctor who requested the mammogram. They may be able to explain your mammogram results to you on the same day as your scan.

If there was anything abnormal spotted on the X-ray images, then you may need further tests, such as a biopsy (where a small tissue sample is taken) for further investigation in our laboratory. This can take a few days but we try to get your results back to you as soon as possible as less waiting means less worrying.

We take an integrated approach so if anything is found during the investigation, we can organise any other breast care that you may need.

Risks involved with mammograms

A mammography is a relatively safe procedure. Some women find the plates uncomfortable or painful, so you may feel some discomfort in your breasts for a few days after, particularly if you had a biopsy. 

Rare but possible complications related to biopsies include:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Fainting
  • Infection
  • Unexpected reaction to the local anaesthetic

Mammography uses a very small amount of X-ray radiation — even less than a chest X-ray and less than a fifth of the background X-ray radiation you are naturally exposed to in a single year. The risk of harm is therefore very low. However, repeated exposure does carry a very small risk of causing cancer. For most women, the benefits of regular breast screening is greater than the risks posed by exposure to low levels of X-ray radiation. 

At Spire Healthcare, we’re careful to weigh up the benefits and risks of any X-ray and discuss it with you if you have any concerns.

Should I worry about a mammogram callback?

If you get a callback after your mammogram, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. There are several other conditions that can cause changes in your breasts. A callback gives your healthcare team a chance to carry out further tests or take more images to get a clearer picture of your breast tissue. This will help them give you a clear diagnosis so you can get treatment, if needed.

What can show up on a mammogram?

Mammograms are the most effective way to detect the early stages of breast cancer. They can pick up changes in your breast tissue including calcifications (small white spots) that may or may not be caused by cancer and dense masses of tissue that are different to healthy breast tissue, which may be caused by cancer or non-cancerous conditions such as cysts and fibroadenomas.

The treatment described on this page may be adapted to meet your individual needs, so it's important to follow your healthcare professional's advice and raise any questions that you may have with them.

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