If your very first mammogram is on your calendar, you may be feeling stressed or have concerns about it. After all, it’s something new that you’ve never experienced before.

But a mammogram is a test you shouldn’t put off.

“In its early stages, breast cancer doesn’t often include noticeable symptoms,” said Christine Policare, M.D., a Geisinger breast radiologist. “Mammograms can detect breast cancer early, giving you the best shot at successful treatment. And now that Geisinger offers 3D mammography, the latest advancement in breast imaging, we are detecting cancers at the earliest stage with a higher frequency than ever before.”

Before you have your first mammogram, there are some things you can do to ensure it’s a positive experience.

  • Plan around your menstrual cycle. During a mammogram, your breasts are compressed for a short time, which can be uncomfortable for some women. To make the experience as pain-free as possible, try planning your mammogram for the week immediately following your menstrual period if you have not started menopause. Your breasts should be less tender, which will make your screening less unpleasant.
  • Skip the deodorant and lotion. To avoid having to repeat your mammogram, don’t wear deodorant or put lotion on your chest the day of your screening. Skincare items can appear as marks on the mammogram and won’t give your doctor a clear picture of your breasts. Consider scheduling an early-morning appointment and taking your deodorant with you.
  • Ditch the dress. When you arrive at the diagnostic center you’ll get a gown to wear during your mammogram. Consider wearing pants or a skirt so you’ll be more comfortable during the procedure.
  • Think about changes before your screening. It’s helpful for the technician to know about any recent changes you’ve noticed in your breasts, as well as any family history of breast cancer. You should also alert the technician if you’re breastfeeding or if you might be pregnant.

During the Screening

The full screening process takes about 20 to 30 minutes. However, the compression aspect of it lasts only a few seconds.

“One at a time, each breast will need to be compressed for a few seconds to get the best pictures,” said Dr. Policare. During a 3D mammogram, the technician will take pictures in two projections — from above and from the side — to ensure visualization of all of the breast tissue.

To do this, your breast is placed on a lower x-ray plate. An upper plate is then lowered onto the breast to compress it and take the mammogram pictures.

After your mammogram, a breast radiologist will review the series of images to see if there are any abnormalities, and then send your doctor a report.

“Your doctor should follow up with your mammogram results in a timely fashion after your mammogram,” said Geisinger breast radiologist John Farrell, M.D.

Many providers enable patients to review their results online. By law, all patients should receive a letter in the mail within 30 days describing their results. But don't assume that no news is good news – in the unlikely event that you don't hear directly from your doctor's office or receive a letter in the mail, it is important to follow up after your mammograms to make sure there was no sign of breast cancer and that no additional testing is necessary.

If your breast radiologist sees something out of the ordinary on your mammogram, you may need a second visit for additional mammogram pictures. However, this is not necessarily cause for concern. The images may be unclear, or you may have a harmless cyst or some dense breast tissue.

“If your doctor sees something abnormal on the mammogram images, it’s very likely to be something other than cancer, tissue overlap for example, especially following your first mammogram,” said Dr. Farrell.

At the time of future mammograms, your breast radiologist will be able to compare the results to past mammograms and more easily monitor any changes over time.