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What’s a mammogram? (And other breast screening FAQs)

mammogram

Should you be screened for breast cancer? Why is this important? Who should get a screening mammogram?

Shannon Gesualdo and Laura McDonald, health promotion coordinators for the Toronto Central – Cancer Screening Program, answer some frequently asked questions about breast screening.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. A mammogram can spot breast cancer before you or your doctor could feel it in your breast.

What is a mammogram looking for?

Mammograms can help detect cancer in its early stages.

Early detection of breast cancer through a screening mammogram means that it’s less likely to have spread and there’s a better chance of treating it successfully.

Who should get screened for breast cancer?

The Ontario Breast Screening Program (OBSP) is a province-wide, organized breast screening program that provides high-quality breast cancer screening to two groups of women: 

  • Women aged 50 to 74 years who are at average risk for breast cancer should be screened with mammography every two years.
    • No physician referral is needed. That means in Ontario* you can call and book a mammogram if you are between 50 and 74, have no acute breast symptoms, no history of breast cancer, no current breast implants and haven’t had a mammogram in the past 11 months.

Visit cancercare.on.ca/justbookit or call 1-800-668-9304 to book your mammogram today.

(Women over age 74 can be screened within the OBSP with a physician referral.)

*If you are outside of Ontario, check with your local health authority.

  • Women aged 30 to 69 years who are identified as being at high risk for breast cancer should be screened with annual mammography and breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) screening (or screening ultrasound, if appropriate). Women can be referred into this program by their healthcare provider based on their family or medical history. Check here for more information about high-risk breast screening and info about what high risk means.

Why should do some high-risk women get MRIs as well as mammograms?

Mammography is the most effective screening approach for the early detection of breast cancer for most women. But for women at high risk, breast MRI screening in addition to mammography has been shown to be the most effective screening approach.

I’m not 50 yet, but I’m worried about breast cancer. What can I do?

Cancer Care Ontario says regardless of your age, if you notice changes with your breasts or have concerns, see your family doctor or nurse practitioner. Most changes are non-cancerous, but should be checked right away.

 All women should be “breast aware.”  Contact your doctor if you notice:

  • A lump or dimpling,
  • Changes in your nipple or fluid leaking from the nipple,
  • Skin changes or redness that does not go away, and
  • Any other changes in your breasts.

My aunt told me mammograms hurt. Is there anything I can do to minimize the discomfort during a mammogram?

If you are worried about feeling discomfort during a mammogram, there are things you can do to help, such as:

  • Try not to book a mammogram during your period because breasts can be tender.
  • Try to have less caffeine (less coffee, tea or pop) for two weeks before a mammogram – this may help reduce breast tenderness.
  • Take a mild pain relief pill, like the kind taken for a headache, about one hour before the appointment. Women should only do this if it will not affect any other medicines or any health concerns they may have.

I’ve heard some people say mammograms aren’t useful – can you explain why they are still the best way to screen for breast cancer?

Mammograms can help detect cancer in its early stages. Early detection of breast cancer through a screening mammogram means that it is less likely to have spread and there’s a better chance of treating it successfully. Speak with your health-care provider for more information about the benefits and limitations of screening with mammography.

Researchers at Sunnybrook and around the world continue to look for the best ways to image the breast.

To book a screening mammogram, visit cancercare.on.ca/justbookit

If you have any questions, speak to your health-care provider.

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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