Skip to main content

Mammography FAQ


Answers to common questions about mammograms


What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. The mammogram allows a doctor to look closer for changes in breast tissue that can’t be felt during a breast exam.

Mammography is used as a cancer screening tool for detecting breast cancer early in women who have no signs or symptoms.

It’s also used to detect cancer in women who have breast symptoms, such as a change in shape or size of breast lumps.

What are the different types of mammograms?

There are the two different types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.

Screening mammogram

A screening mammogram is an X-ray of the breast used to detect breast changes in women who don’t have any signs or symptoms of breast cancer. It isn’t meant to diagnose cancer, but screening mammography is used to determine if additional evaluation is necessary.

Diagnostic mammogram

Similar to a screening mammogram, a diagnostic mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. The difference is that diagnostic mammography provides a more detailed view of the breast tissue.

A diagnostic mammogram is used to diagnose unusual breast changes and evaluate any abnormalities found on a screening mammogram.

What is 3D mammography or digital mammography?

3D mammography, which is also called 3D digital breast tomography, uses an X-ray rotation across the breast to create an image of the entire breast.

This 3D technology reduces false positive readings and improves early detection.

Learn more about 3D mammography.

Why is mammography so important?

Screening mammography is an important tool in detecting breast cancer at the earliest possible stage, before there are symptoms.

Early breast cancer detection means treatment can be started in the earlier stages of the disease, possibly before it can spread to other areas. Survival rates are much higher when cancer is found in its beginning stages rather than late stages.

When should I have my first mammogram? How often?

The American College of Radiology recommends having your first mammogram at age 40.

Then after that, you should be screened once a year.

My mom had breast cancer. When should I get screened?

If your mother has or had breast cancer, you should start monitoring your breast health using mammography either:

  • 10 years before the age your mother was first diagnosed with the disease
  • By age 40

…whichever is earliest.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

The following conditions can be symptoms of breast cancer:

  • A lump or mass in the breast or a lump in the underarm area
  • Swelling of the breast
  • Skin irritation, redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
  • Breast or nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
  • Nipple discharge other than milk

See your physician if you detect any of these symptoms.

How do you know if you’re at high risk for breast cancer?

Being a woman is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer, though men can also get the disease.

Breast cancer is also strongly related to age. As we get older, our risk increases, which are why we recommend annual mammograms starting at age 40.

Other breast cancer risk factors include:

  • Having a family or personal history of breast cancer
  • Having dense breast tissue
  • Early menstruation before age 12
  • Late menopause after age 55
How is a mammogram done?

You will meet with a mammography registered technician in the mammography suite.

For the mammogram, the breasts are compressed to help spread the tissues, which provides a clearer picture.

Two X-rays are taken of each breast – one from the side and one from above.

A screening mammogram takes about 15 to 20 minutes from start to finish.

Is a mammogram painful?

You will feel slight pressure for a few seconds but no significant pain.

Your mammography technician will work with you to insure your comfort.

Is there a risk of radiation exposure from having regular mammograms?

The mammogram procedure is safe: There’s only a very small amount of radiation exposure from a mammogram, even less than a standard chest X-ray.

The benefits of mammography, however, nearly always outweigh the potential harm from the radiation exposure.

How do digital and conventional mammograms compare?

All mammography at Ballad Health is digital.

We do not use conventional film mammography.

What’s the same

From the patient’s perspective, a digital mammogram is the same as a standard film-based mammogram in this way: breast compression and radiation are necessary to create clear images of the breast.

What’s different

Length of exam

The time needed to position the patient is the same for each method.

However, digital mammography provides the image on the computer monitor just seconds after the X-ray.

In contrast, conventional film mammography requires several minutes to develop the film.

So digital mammography provides a shorter exam.

Image clarity

A digital mammography can be adjusted to correct for under-exposure or over-exposure after the exam is completed.

This can help the radiologist more clearly see certain areas of the breast.


How do I get started?

To learn more about digital mammography or to schedule a mammogram, please call:

  • Abingdon, VA – (423) 431-1709
  • Bristol, TN – (423) 844-4584
  • Erwin, TN – (423) 431-1709
  • Greeneville, TN (Laughlin Center for Women’s Health) – (423) 787-5123
  • Johnson City, TN – (423) 431-1709
  • Kingsport, TN – (423) 224-5312
  • Marion, VA – 1-800-659-6762

Still have questions?

Contact Us to Learn More