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Mammogram Basics

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month — a great time for women to consider scheduling a mammogram. Also, remember to ask your doctor for a breast self-exam instruction card to hang in the shower. It’s a helpful monthly reminder to take care of your health.

The Basics

Mammography is a low-dose X-ray of the breast that is currently the most effective way of finding breast cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages. Any possible discomfort during a mammogram should not prevent women from scheduling this procedure.

A female registered technologist takes the X-ray. These specialists are trained to position the breast and to set the machine to obtain the best possible image with the least possible discomfort. During the procedure, the woman’s breast is placed on a ledge and gently compressed in order to see all the tissue and any possible abnormalities.

How Often?

Most doctors recommend a baseline mammogram between age 35 and 40 and yearly mammograms starting at age 40 (sometimes earlier if a woman has a family history of breast cancer). In addition to the annual mammogram, women should perform a monthly breast self-exam beginning at age 20, and a woman’s physician should perform a clinical breast exam at least every three years up to age 40 and yearly after age 40.

How To Avoid Discomfort

Fear of discomfort is one reason some women may choose not to have their recommended annual mammogram. There are a few simple things a woman can do to ease any possible discomfort she may feel during this important test.

Hold off on caffeine. Caffeine has a tendency to make a woman’s breasts tender and lumpy, potentially making the mammogram uncomfortable. Avoid drinking coffee and tea, unless it’s decaffeinated, for a week prior to a mammogram. Other items containing caffeine include diet drinks, chocolate and even some common over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Be sure to read the label of any OTC medications before you take them prior to a scheduled mammogram.

Steer clear of perfumes, talcum powder, etc. Deodorant, talcum powder, perfumes and oils may leave a residue that can be picked up by the X-rays, obscuring the mammogram and possibly interfering with the results. Ultimately, this means a woman could need a second mammogram. Do not use these products on the day of the scheduled mammogram.

Check your calendar. “Most women’s breasts are naturally more tender or slightly swollen during the week prior to their menstrual period,” says Alicia Starr MD, medical director at Baylor University’s Women’s Imaging Center. “Try to avoid scheduling your annual mammogram during this time.”

Dress for comfort. Wear a two-piece outfit with a blouse or sweater on the day of the appointment. While a woman’s choice of outfit will not affect the outcome of her mammogram, most women find it easier and faster to slip off a blouse instead of removing a one-piece dress.

Kathy Sena is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to MetroKids.

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