What Is a Diagnostic Mammogram & Why Is It Necessary?

Women approaching the age of 40 are often told they need to start getting mammograms. Many women don’t look forward to this part of their annual check-up.

If your doctor orders a diagnostic mammogram, you may be wondering, “Why would a diagnostic mammogram be ordered?”

The short answer? Diagnostic mammograms are an excellent tool to catch breast cancer early. For the long answer on what diagnostic mammograms are and what they entail, keep reading.

What is a Diagnostic Mammogram?

In simple terms, a diagnostic mammogram is an x-ray examination of the breasts.

In a typical annual mammogram, a doctor screens the entire breast to check for breast cancer or other abnormalities. If they spot anything unusual, like lumps, skin changes, tenderness, or nipple discharge, they’ll order a diagnostic mammogram.

During a diagnostic mammogram, your doctor will take a closer look at a specific area of breast tissue where the doctor spotted problems. This will help them to confirm whether the change is benign (non-cancerous) or whether it may indicate breast cancer and needs further treatment.

Diagnostic Mammogram vs Screening Mammogram

Before we go any further, we should make sure you understand the difference between a diagnostic and a screening mammogram.

A screening mammogram is an exam that you get every year when you go to the doctor. It looks at the whole breast to make sure there aren’t any issues that need closer examination. This is done annually in women with no previous history of breast cancer and no changes in their breast exam.

A diagnostic mammogram is only done if the doctor thinks they may have spotted a problem. If a screening mammogram is the first step to check for breast cancer, a diagnostic mammogram is the next stage of the process.

Why Would a Diagnostic Mammogram Be Ordered?

With that in mind, let’s address the original question: why would a diagnostic mammogram be ordered?

Many women go to their annual check-up without needing a diagnostic mammogram, since the screening mammogram didn’t raise any red flags. A diagnostic mammogram, as a rule, is only ordered when the doctor needs to take a closer look at a specific part of your breast tissue.

It’s part of any successful breast cancer risk assessment program, designed to catch problems before they can have a serious impact on your overall health.

To be clear: most diagnostic mammograms turn out to be nothing. But it’s always better to double check in case you fall into the minority that has a real issue.

When Should You Get One?

Generally, your regular doctor or radiologist will tell you when to get a diagnostic mammogram.

If they do tell you to get one, you should schedule one as soon as you can. If it turns out that you do have early signs of breast cancer, it’s much easier to treat now than months from now when cancer has had time to progress.

Put it this way: the 5-year survival rate for women diagnosed with stage 0 to stage 1 breast cancer is close to 100%. For women diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, the 5-year survival rate is 93%.

Catching it early can have a huge impact on your quality of life. So don’t wait to get a diagnostic mammogram.

What is Involved in a Diagnostic Mammogram?

With that in mind, let’s talk about what actually happens during a diagnostic mammogram.

If you go in for a mammogram, make sure to choose a center with a patient workflow that you like. You should feel comfortable in this environment, especially if you’re already stressed out by the prospect of the mammogram.


If you have regular periods, it’s best to schedule a diagnostic mammogram about one week after your period starts.

You may still be miserable from your period, but after about a week, your breasts shouldn’t be particularly tender, so those few seconds when the x-ray plates are pressed into your chest won’t feel uncomfortable.

If you have breast implants, make sure to let the screening center know. They’ll need to schedule a longer appointment for you, as they have to account for different factors that implants introduce.

If you’ve had a diagnostic mammogram done at a different center, bring records of those mammograms to your appointment. Your radiologist will compare them to your current results to get a sense of your baseline.

You shouldn’t wear any deodorant, lotion, perfume, or talcum powder the day of your mammogram (these will all show up as shadows on the scan). For maximum comfort, wear a two-piece outfit (i.e. not a dress) so that you only have to undress from the waist up.

During the Mammogram

Once you’re ready for the mammogram, the radiologist will ask various questions, like whether you’ve had a diagnostic mammogram before and whether you’ve had breast procedures in the past. They’ll also explain how the procedure works.

They’ll use two plates to compress your breasts one at a time. This will only last a few seconds, though the radiologist will take more than one view of your breast.

You may not love the compression, but it’s a necessary evil–without it, the image would be blurry (and the radiologist would have to expose you to more radiation to get a usable image). Keep in mind that it will only last a few seconds at most.


You may have some tenderness after the x-ray. If your skin is fragile, you may have minor bruising or (in rare cases) skin splitting.

Tell the radiologist beforehand if your skin is unusually sensitive, and ask them afterward if there’s anything you can do to alleviate the discomfort.

Your radiologist will report the results and your doctor will be in touch with you about the outcome.

The Best Mammography Technology

Now you know the answer to the question, “Why would a diagnostic mammogram be ordered?”

Now the question is where you’ll get it done. Ideally, you should go to a center with cutting edge technology.

If you need help finding a breast imaging center near you, please contact us. We’re happy to help.


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