What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a safe, low-dose x-ray exam of the breasts to look for changes that are not normal. The results are recorded on x-ray film or directly into a computer for a doctor called a radiologist to examine.

A mammogram allows the doctor to have a closer look for changes in breast tissue that cannot be felt during a breast exam. It is used for women who have no breast complaints and for women who have breast symptoms, such as a change in the shape or size of a breast, a lump, nipple discharge, or pain. Breast changes occur in almost all women. In fact, most of these changes are not cancer and are called “benign,” but only a doctor can know for sure. Breast changes can also happen monthly, due to your menstrual period.

How is a mammogram done?

As you stand in front of a special x-ray machine, the person who takes the x-rays, called a radiologic technician, places your breasts, one at a time, between an x-ray plate and a plastic plate. These plates are attached to the mammogram machine and compress the breasts to flatten them. This spreads the breast tissue out to obtain a clearer picture. You will feel pressure on your breast for a few seconds. It may cause you some discomfort; you might feel squeezed or pinched. This feeling only lasts for a few seconds, and the flatter your breast, the better the picture. Most often, two pictures are taken of each breast — one from the side and one from above. A screening mammogram takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.

Types of Mammograms

  • Screening mammograms are done for women who have no symptoms of breast cancer. It usually involves two x-rays of each breast. Screening mammograms can detect lumps or tumors that cannot be felt. They can also find microcalcifications or tiny deposits of calcium in the breast, which sometimes mean that breast cancer is present.
  • Diagnostic mammograms are used to check for breast cancer after a lump or other symptom or sign of breast cancer has been found. Signs of breast cancer may include pain, thickened skin on the breast, nipple discharge, or a change in breast size or shape. This type of mammogram also can be used to find out more about breast changes found on a screening mammogram, or to view breast tissue that is hard to see on a screening mammogram. A diagnostic mammogram takes longer than a screening mammogram because it involves more x-rays in order to obtain views of the breast from several angles. The technician can magnify a problem area to make a more detailed picture, which helps the doctor make a correct diagnosis.

A digital mammogram also uses x-ray radiation to produce an image of the breast, but instead of storing the image directly on film, it stores the image of the breast directly on a computer. This allows the recorded data to be magnified for the doctor to take a closer look. Current research has not shown that digital images are better at showing cancer than x-ray film images in general. But, women with dense breasts who are pre- or perimenopausal, or who are younger than age 50, may benefit from having a digital rather than a film mammogram. Digital mammography may offer these benefits:

  • Long-distance consults with other doctors may be easier because the images can be shared by computer.
  • Slight differences between normal and abnormal tissues may be easily noted.
  • The number of follow-up tests needed may be fewer.
  • Fewer repeat images may be needed, reducing exposure to radiation.

Where can I get a high-quality mammogram?
Women can get high quality mammograms in breast clinics, hospital radiology departments, mobile vans, private radiology offices, and doctors’ offices. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certifies mammography facilities that meet strict quality standards for their x-ray machines and staff and are inspected every year. You can ask your doctor or the staff at the mammography center about FDA certification before making your appointment.

A list of FDA-certified facilities can be found on the Internet at:

Your doctor, local medical clinic, or local or state health department can tell you where to get no-cost or low-cost mammograms. You can also call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service toll free. Visit them online at

More Information

Free Mammograms and information by state:

You can find out more about mammograms by contacting or the following organizations:

American Cancer Society

Breast Health Access for Women With Disabilities
The clinic is located at 2001 Dwight Way, Berkeley, CA. For more information or to schedule an appointment call (510) 204-4866.

Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation

National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service



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