One of the best tools available to doctors in the fight against breast cancer is the mammogram.
Simply put, a mammogram is an x-ray of the breast tissue. “The mammogram can detect a cancer before I can ever feel it,” Dr. Bohn “And that’s what we want.” Before a mammogram is administered, doctors will administer a clinical breast
exam in which a clinician will try to feel any masses that are suspicious. This is similar to a self-breast exam you can do yourself, but doctors are trained and might pick up on something you miss.
So what do doctors look for in mammogram x-rays? Small deposits of calcium called calcifications that are not detectable in clinical and self exams can be seen in mammogram imaging. While these calcium deposits are harmless on their own, the surrounding breast tissue may be cancerous and must be examined diligently.
“In general we start mammogram screening at the age of 40,” Dr. Park explained. At 40, mammograms should become a yearly routine, but sometimes it is appropriate for younger women to be screened.
“Usually if I have a patient with first degree relatives,” said Dr. Park, “so a mom or a sister with breast cancer, I would start the screening about 10 years prior to when they were diagnosed,” Dr. Park said. For example, if a patient’s mother was diagnosed at age 40, screening for that patient would start at 30.
In the event that a pregnant woman has a breast mass, a doctor may want to perform a
mammogram. It is generally better to avoid x-ray procedures during pregnancy unless the benefit to a mother’s heath outweighs the risk to the fetus. However, studies have found that the risk of radiation exposure to the fetus from a mammogram is minimal when appropriate shielding is used.
Mammogram screenings are a vital part of health care, and women are encouraged to talk to their doctors about breast exams and mammograms.
 Nicklas, A, Baker M: Imaging strategies in pregnant cancer patients. Semin Oncol 27:623, 2000