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Few tools in the medical arsenal are as important for detecting breast cancer as the mammogram. The mammogram has been available for about 30 years and is a simple x-ray of breast tissue. Both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute recommend yearly mammograms for all women over 40.
While mammograms aren't able to detect all incidents of breast cancer, they can often find a cancer hidden deep in the breast that a woman cannot feel during her self exams.
The radiation exposure in a typical mammogram is quite low. During the procedure, the breast is compressed between two plates and photographed. While this compression is generally not comfortable, the flattening helps provide better images.
Digital mammography is also becoming more common. While it is still the exception, digital images allow the doctor to zero in on a certain area of the breast. Film images, however, are currently better for clarity than digital images.