Digital mammography, or mammogram, is a low-dose x-ray that captures a picture of the breast electronically and allows the image to be viewed on a computer screen. The breast is carefully positioned and gently compressed with a special paddle so that the maximum amount of tissue will appear in the image. This flattening also helps spread the tissue in dense parts of the breast more evenly so that a clearer picture of these areas can be obtained. It also helps doctors determine which changes are noncancerous (benign) and which are cancerous (malignant). Women at average risk should begin getting their first mammogram at age 40 and continue to do so on an annual basis. While screening mammograms are routinely administered to detect breast cancer in women who have no apparent symptoms, diagnostic mammograms are used after suspicious results on a screening mammogram or after some signs of breast cancer alert the physician to check the tissue.
- When possible, schedule yourself for called breast tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammography. This is an advanced technology that takes multiple images of breast tissue to recreate a 3-dimensional picture of the breast, resulting in additional cancers being detected while lowering false-positive readings. Women may be exposed to slightly higher levels of radiation with this type of screening.
- Schedule your mammogram at the end of your menstrual cycle when your breasts are least tender. The readings will be more accurate, the compression will be more comfortable, and when they compare films from year to year, they will be comparing breasts of similar status.
- When possible, go to the same imaging center each year. If you move or change sites, bring your digital records with you, so that current mammograms can be compared to past images.
- Make sure the center that is doing your mammogram is accredited by the American College of Radiology. This will ensure that accurate and safe dosages of radiation are being used.
- Women who have a personal or family history of breast cancer should speak to their doctor about getting mammograms sooner.
Breast ultrasound (also referred to as sonography or ultrasonography) is often used as a tool to help evaluate an abnormality detected through a clinical breast examination or mammography. During an ultrasound, the patient lies on the table and a gel is applied to the area of the breast that is being examined. The ultrasound technologist (sonographer) or radiologist then glides a transducer, a small hand-held instrument, over the breast. The breast ultrasound uses sound waves to distinguish solid and fluid-filled masses. For example, a breast ultrasound can detect cysts which are fluid-filled masses that are noncancerous (benign).
Breast Ultrasound Tips
- Some physicians may require their patients to schedule a breast ultrasound with their routine mammography. The breast ultrasound does not replace the mammography but complements it.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the breast is a diagnostic tool that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to make digital 2-D and 3-D pictures of the breast. Sometimes a dye, known as contrast, is given to provide improve image clarity. A technologist will position the patient lying face down on a concave table. Both breasts will be positioned in the concave opening of the table which contains a breast coil that helps create pictures of the breasts.
Breast MRI is sometimes used in women who already have been diagnosed with breast cancer, to help measure the size of the cancer, look for other tumors in the same breast, and to check for tumors in the opposite breast. But not every woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer needs a breast MRI.
For certain women at high risk for breast cancer, a screening MRI is recommended along with a yearly mammogram. MRI is not recommended as a screening test by itself because it can miss some cancers that a mammogram would find.
Although MRI can find some cancers not seen on a mammogram, it’s also more likely to find things that turn out not to be cancer (called a false positive). This can result in a woman getting tests and/or biopsies that end up not being needed. This is why MRI is not recommended as a screening test for women at average risk of breast cancer.
Breast MRI Tips
- Women who are at higher risk or have a personal or family history of breast cancer should speak to their doctor about having Breast MRIs with routine mammography.
- The breast MRI should supplement mammography screening not replace it.
- Breast MRIs can successfully image dense breasts (usually found in younger women)
Learn more about how breast imaging fits into the 3-Pronged Approach of breast health.