Mammography and other screening tests are the best way to find cancer early. Early detection is vital because that’s when we have the most options for treatment to give you the best chance for a cure.

Because annual mammograms decrease a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer by 30 percent, I recommend that mammography screenings start at age 40. Here are five things to know about getting screened for breast cancer:

1. Why do I need a mammogram if I have no family history of breast cancer?

Most women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease. The older we get, the more we’re at risk for breast cancer.

2. What is it like to get a mammogram?

A mammogram is an x-ray that quickly takes two pictures of each breast. Your breast will need to be compressed during the picture, which can feel tight and uncomfortable, but only for a few seconds. We ask some patients to come back for additional imaging if we have a question about an area, especially if it's their first screening and we have no other imaging to compare. Most of the time, patients who are asked to come back need nothing more than those extra pictures.

Let’s Make a Date! Schedule a mammogram appointment by calling 401-444-7770.

3. What kinds of mammograms are there?

Digital mammography is now routine in most centers, including the Breast Imaging centers at Lifespan Medical Imaging. Having tomosynthesis (a 3D mammogram) as part of your digital mammogram improves detection of breast cancer. We have the latest technology, allowing us to obtain both a digital and a 3D mammogram as part of your examination with no additional time or radiation.

4. What if I have dense breasts?

Some women have what is known to radiologists as “dense breast tissue.” This is a normal condition, but it can hide tumors on a mammogram. If you do have dense breasts, talk to your doctor about the option of breast ultrasound. Ultrasound can find additional cancers that may go undetected by mammography. However, it can also find more areas which are not cancerous, but that may need further testing with a biopsy or follow-up. Ultrasound doesn’t replace mammography, but it’s an option for additional screening in women with dense breasts.

5. What if I have a family history of breast cancer?

A family history of breast cancer may mean you are at a higher risk than average. High-risk women typically have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or have a medical history that indicates high risk. Your doctor can determine if you’re at a high risk of breast cancer or can refer you to a breast specialist. If you are at high risk, you should get an annual breast MRI in addition to mammography. When an MRI is performed, ultrasound screening isn’t necessary.

Remember, we’re here to help you be informed. Feel free to ask questions! Because we know mammography and breast cancer risk can be confusing, our team of professionals is here to help you. In addition to our team of technologists and radiologists, we have a nurse navigator who can also help answer your questions. We love what we do because we know it makes a difference for women.

Call us with questions at 401-444-7770 or email us at [email protected] to schedule an appointment.

For more information, including answers to frequently asked questions about breast cancer screenings, visit the Anne C. Pappas Center for Breast Imaging webpage. 

Martha B. Mainiero, MD

Dr. Martha Mainiero is a radiologist and director of the Anne C. Pappas Center for Breast Imaging at Rhode Island Hospital.