Mammograms have long been considered the ultimate tool in breast cancer detection. It is generally recommended that women over the age of 40 have annual mammograms, while women with a family or personal history of certain cancers may be advised by their doctor to begin those screenings earlier.
A mammogram is an imaging examination of the breast performed to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, often before any signs or symptoms of the disease are present. This exam is recommended annually for women over the age of 40, who are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. In addition to age, patients who have a personal or family history of breast cancer, abnormal breast changes or long-term use of hormone therapy may also be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer and should be screened on a regular basis.
They may be performed for screening or diagnostic purposes. Screenings involve producing images of both breasts in order to detect any tumors that cannot yet be felt under the skin. They can also detect calcium deposits that may indicate breast cancer. Diagnostic mammograms are performed after a lump or other sign of breast cancer has been detected, or after abnormalities were present during a screening. This procedure targets a specific area of the breast and takes more detailed images from many different angles.
Is simply the next generation of mammography. This upgrade to the previous technology allows radiologists to take and manipulate multiple images so that a higher contrast can be achieved and masses can be better identified. At Medstar Health, we rely on this type of screening to assist in earlier breast cancer detection.
From the patient perspective, digital mammography works in much the same way as traditional. Patients are asked to remove clothing from above the waist, and the breasts are then positioned between two plates that flatten and compress the tissue as images are taken from all sides. Some patients report mild to moderate discomfort during the imaging process, but the test itself typically takes no more than 20 minutes to complete. While this is not used in the actual treatment of cancer, it is a key tool in the early detection of breast cancer, which has the potential to improve treatment success rates.
Preparing for a mammography
The only preparation a patient needs to engage in prior to a digital mammography is arriving on time and following technician instructions for breast placement in the machine. It does emit a small level of radiation, so patients who are pregnant or suspect they may be pregnant should discuss concerns with their doctor prior to the procedure.
We perform digital mammography services that offer patients faster and more accurate results than the traditional X-ray exam. Our lab is fully equipped with the latest technology available that allows us to provide patients with the most precise results.
The digital mammogram shares the same basic principles as the traditional X-ray method, as X-ray technology is still used to produce the image of the breast. However, instead of capturing the image to film, digital captures the image directly to the doctor’s computer for fast, easy viewing. The X-ray waves are converted into electrical signals, similar to the technology used in a digital camera. Compression of the breast is still needed to produce an accurate image. Digital mammograms are approved by the FDA and offer results comparable if not better than the conventional exam.
Benefits of digital mammography
The image can be viewed and sent to our radiologist right away. They can also be sent instantly to other doctors regardless of their location. If the image is unclear, or if additional images are needed, they can be taken at the same time as the initial visit to avoid inconveniencing the patient and to minimize any potential anxieties about a second visit.
In addition to its convenience, digital mammography is also more accurate than film mammograms, especially in detecting cancer in women under the age of 50 or in women with dense breasts. There is less radiation used than film mammograms, therefore reducing the patient’s lifetime exposure to radiation.
During the procedure, the breast is placed on a small platform and compressed with a paddle while it is exposed to a very low dose of radiation. Compression helps even out the thickness of the breast so that all breast tissue can be visualized and also holds the breast still to minimize blurring of the image caused by patient movement. Images of the breast tissue are produced and then displayed on a computer screen for your doctor to view.
There is no special preparation needed for the mammogram procedure. Patients should not schedule it the week before they have their period, as the breasts are usually tender at this time. During the procedure, you may experience pressure on the breast from the compression, which may be uncomfortable if you have sensitive breasts. Most patients tolerate the mammogram procedure with no problems.
A mammogram is considered to be a safe procedure for most women, including those with breast implants. It is important to inform your doctor if you are pregnant or have any pre-existing medical conditions.
Women’s imaging - ahead of the curve
NEW SmartCurve™ Mammography at MedStar Health provides a curved compression surface that offers a more comfortable patient experience without compromising image quality.
- Curved surface mirrors breast shape
- Uniform compression minimizes pressure points and pinching
- Exceptional image quality with 3D mammography technology
FAQs about dense breast tissue
How common is it to have dense breasts?
Dense breast tissue is not abnormal. Fifty percent of women will fall into one of two categories, heterogeneously dense or extremely dense. The determination of density is a qualitative visual assessment performed by the radiologist.
Does having dense breasts increase my risk of cancer?
Breast density is not a major cancer risk factor. However, the sensitivity to mammography is reduced as density increases making it harder to identify breast abnormalities. A risk assessment is a good starting point in the discussion with your doctor about whether supplemental tests will be beneficial.
Should I continue to get mammograms if I have dense breasts?
Yes. Mammography is the only screening tool proven to lower breast cancer mortality. It is the only test available that reliably detects suspicious calcifications. Such calcifications are often the first sign of in-situ cancers, which coexist with otherwise invisible invasive cancers. Other options are available, but should be considered in addition to regular screening mammography.
What are the benefits of 3D Mammography?
3D mammography™ allows the doctor to better see the different structures as well as the location, size and shape of abnormal tissue. This allows more cancers to be found earlier when they are more treatable and also reduces the chance of a false positive exam resulting in additional imaging.
Breast Density Information in Mammography Reports
The Federal Food and Drug Administration requires mammography facilities to report final results to patients by letter within 30 days of testing, pending the arrival date of comparison images.
MedStar Health includes the specific breast density in these physician report and those results should be discussed with your physician.
We encourage patients to talk with their doctor about breast density, along with any findings and family history to determine their best testing options.
Are there other screening options for women with dense breast tissue?
Among the additional tests that are available, breast MRI, breast ultrasound, and 3D breast tomosynthesis are impacted less by breast density in their ability to detect cancer than 2D mammography alone.
What if I have dense breast tissue and have other factors?
In high risk women, supplemental screening tests are recommended in addition to mammography. Studies support the use of MRI in women who are known to have a very high risk (>20% lifetime or >5% 10-year) of breast cancer, regardless of breast density. Screening breast MRI is typically covered by insurance for high-risk women only.