There are lots of reasons for putting off a mammogram: You're nervous. You're shy. You're busy. Or you just don't like it.
There's also one great reason for not putting it off: Mammograms save lives.
"Regular mammograms are the best way we have right now of detecting breast cancer early, when tumors are smaller and treatments can be less invasive," says Elizabeth Woolfe, of education and special projects for the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations in New York City. "Every woman should know how to make the most of this important tool."
Mammograms aren't fun, "but they're not something to be feared, either," says Woolfe. "If there's discomfort, it usually lasts no more than a few seconds, and that's a very small price to pay for peace of mind."
Instead of avoiding the test, Woolfe says, "take charge of the process. Learn how to make the experience of getting a mammogram a positive one, so you'll make the effort to do it regularly and do it right."
Give yourself an edge
All mammography equipment must be certified and inspected annually by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But because a mammogram can give only a picture of how your breasts appear at a certain point in time, you must provide the context so the radiologist and your doctor can note and track any changes that occur.
For the best results:
Get regular mammograms. Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Talk with your doctor about your personal risk factors before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often to get them.
Schedule for comfort. Ask for an appointment the week after your period, when your breasts are less tender.
Dress for success. Wear a two-piece outfit with a top you can slip out of easily.
Make sure the radiologist has your previous films. If you change facilities, have your old X-rays sent to you and bring them to your next mammogram.
Tell your doctor and the radiologist about any concerns you have about your breast health -- particularly if you have noticed something unusual.
Make sure your doctor and radiologist know about any issues in your health history that can aid in interpreting results.
After your screening, it's also important you follow up, Woolfe says. The FDA requires results to be mailed to you, and many facilities will also phone you with them. If you don't hear within 10 days, call the facility yourself.
Sometimes, the radiologist will ask you to schedule another appointment so additional pictures can be taken. Usually, this is to clarify an indistinct image and shouldn't be cause for alarm. To keep delays and stress to a minimum, make the appointment promptly and keep it.
If the radiologist identifies something in your mammogram that needs additional evaluation, you'll be referred to a specialist. Your primary-care physician or OB/GYN will make the referral, but, once again, it will be up to you to make and keep the appointment.
At any point, feel free to ask questions about what's happening and why.
"It's your life and your health. Empower yourself to feel in control," says Woolfe.