Why Are You Squeezing My Breasts?

Besides lung cancer, breast cancer causes more deaths among American women than any other form of cancer. A woman's chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime is 1 in 8. Each year about 240,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed (that is one for every 2 and a half minutes). Sadly, 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year (one death every 13 minutes). Screening mammography reduces breast cancer mortality by 25-30% for women ages 50-70 and by 18% for women ages 40-50. Early detection is incredibly important. The 12-year survival rate is 95% for cancers detected that are less than 1 centimeter in size. Despite these statistics, many women still do not consistently have their yearly mammograms. The major complaint is discomfort. 

Here are some of the more common concerns with mammograms and the explanations as to why they occur.

Q: Why do you have to squeeze my breasts? 
A: When a patient undergoes a mammogram the breasts are placed in between two paddles on the machine. The paddles compress the breast and an x-ray is taken. The paddles apply pressure on the breast. This serves two purposes. First, it holds the breast still. The slightest movement can blur the images. This can limit the sensitivity of detecting tiny calcifications that can be a sign of cancer. The second reason is to displace breast tissue. Breast tissue looks white on mammograms. Unfortunately, cancers also look white on mammograms. Finding cancer in breast tissue can be like finding a snowball in a snow bank. One thing that helps improve detection of cancer is trying to spread out the breast tissue as much as possible. This is performed by the pressure applied by the paddles. 

Q: Why do you have to pull my breasts? 
A: Mammograms are all about early breast cancer detection. Breast cancer can form in any portion of breast tissue. Therefore, it is important to have as much breast tissue imaged as possible. So our technologists need to physically pull the breast onto the x-ray film so all of the breast tissue is included in the mammogram. Many women do not know breast tissue extends up to the collar bone. It is also very important to image the lymph nodes in the armpits to detect potential early cancer spread. This is why we image and compress high to the level of the shoulder. 

Q: Why do you have to take so many images? 
A: The standard way to image the breast is top to bottom and side to side. Typically, each breast is imaged twice (four x-rays total). Occasionally additional views are needed to better image all the breast tissue from various angles. This helps improve detection of potential breast cancer. 

Q: Sometimes when I am asked to return for more images, the technologists use a paddle that squeezes my breast even more. Why does that happen? 
A: The breast is made up of many layers of overlapping breast tissue. Occasionally, the radiologist will see an area on the mammogram which is suspicious. It must be determined whether this is truly cancer or overlapping breast tissue. A specialized paddle will be used to press on the area that is suspicious. If the area of concern disappears with the compression, it is likely an artifact and represents overlapping breast tissue. If this area persists with compression, cancer must be considered and additional imaging or a biopsy may be performed. Mammograms are extremely important for breast cancer detection. Although mammograms can occasionally be uncomfortable, they often save lives. 

As always if you have any question, please do not hesitate to contact our staff, 732-244-0777.