As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Mammography Day is October 18 this year.

A mammogram (an X-ray image of the breast) is still the best test for early detection of breast cancer — the most common cancer in women. If you’ve never had a mammogram, you may wonder when you should get one, or you may be nervous about getting one. This is normal.

Learning about this very important test before you go may help you feel more relaxed. Here’s what you need to know before you schedule your first mammogram.

Screening mammogram recommendations

Recommendations for screening mammograms vary based on your age, your risk for breast cancer, and the density of your breast tissue. Recommendations also differ by medical organization.

The following are screening mammogram recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force:

  • Women aged 40 to 49 at average risk for breast cancer may get a screening mammogram every two years if they believe the potential benefit outweighs the potential harms.
  • Women aged 50 to 74 at average risk for breast cancer should get a screening mammogram every two years.
  • Women with a parent, sibling or child with breast cancer are at higher risk for breast cancer and may benefit from regular screening mammograms beginning in their 40s.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a chart showing mammogram recommendations from all the major medical organizations in the U.S. Consider reviewing this chart with your doctor to learn which guidelines he or she follows and which guidelines will work best with your personal and family health history.

Screening mammogram vs. diagnostic mammogram

If you have no signs or symptoms of breast cancer and are getting a mammogram to check for breast cancer, you’ll get what’s called a screening mammogram. Screening mammograms take at least two pictures of each breast from two angles. The results are available within a few weeks — sooner if they’re abnormal.

If the results are abnormal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but you will have to come back for a diagnostic mammogram.

Though an abnormal finding could be cancer, it could also be a noncancerous tumor or a cyst. It could even just be that the images from your screening mammogram weren’t clear.

During a diagnostic mammogram, the technologist will take more pictures, and a radiologist will be present to assist the technologist and share the results with you while you’re there.

Mammogram prep tips

These tips will help you get ready for your first mammogram:

  • Try to schedule your appointment the week after your period — your breasts are more tender the week before and during your period, which can make the test more uncomfortable.
  • Wear pants or a skirt on the day of your appointment, so you’ll only have to remove your top during the test.
  • Skip antiperspirant and deodorant on the day of your appointment — these can show up as an abnormal finding.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, right before your appointment.

You’ll likely receive more instructions and tips from your doctor or the mammogram facility. Review these carefully and ask questions before your appointment. This will ensure you know what to expect.