The annual mammogram for women age 40 and over is vital in the early detection of breast cancer. But heading into your first mammogram can be a little nerve-racking for a couple of reasons. You’ve probably heard from friends that it can be painful. And there’s always the fear that the test will reveal a problem. To help prevent you from worrying unnecessarily, we’ve outlined a typical mammogram, so you’ll know what to expect.

Before your mammogram:

  • Your doctor will place an order for your mammogram with a lab. Try to schedule the procedure during the point in your menstrual cycle when your breasts are the least tender.
  • You will not be able to wear deodorant or body powder or cream. Schedule an early morning test so you don’t have to go all day without these necessities. Or pack these items in your bag or purse so you can apply them after the procedure is over.
  • Be sure to specify whether you would prefer a male or female technician, or if you don’t mind either way.
  • When getting dressed on the day of your mammogram, opt for pants or a skirt instead of a dress. You’ll feel more comfortable while in the waiting room dressed in your hospital gown if you have a little something to cover your bottom half.

During your mammogram:

  • The mammography technician is a trained, licensed X-ray technician who will position your breasts correctly and operate the machinery.
  • Your technician will ask you a few questions – your doctor’s name, your address, if you have any lumps in your breasts or have had breast surgery. If you have breast implants, let him or her know.
  • The technician might place stickers on your nipples and on any moles you may have on your breasts, so they are easier to identify in the final images.
  • You’ll take the test standing up. The height of the machine will be adjusted so you can easily place your breast onto the “shelf” of the machine. The technician will position your breast correctly as you lean in.
  • As the machine compresses your breast, you’ll be asked to hold your breath. Just like any other X-ray, it takes only a few seconds for the image to be captured. As soon as it’s captured, the machine will automatically release your breast. It might be uncomfortable, even a bit painful, but just know that it will last only a moment for each image.
  • A basic mammogram requires four images: one of each breast compressed from top to bottom and one of each breast compressed from side to side. The technician might take more if he or she sees a possible lump, or if the doctor has requested another angle.

After your mammogram:

  • Once all the images are captured, you’ll be asked to head back to the waiting room.
  • Don’t remove the gown just yet – the technician may need to capture another shot or angle. He or she will let you know when you can get dressed and leave.
  • Your technician cannot discuss your test results with you. They will be sent to your doctor, who will reveal the results and let you know any next steps you might need to take.