Mammography is widely recognized as the “gold standard” in detecting breast cancer. Additionally, today’s mammograms expose the breast to much less radiation compared with those in the past and are more accurate. It’s recommended that women begin an annual mammogram at age 40. There are different types of mammograms.
Screening mammograms are used for women who are at average risk and have no signs or symptoms of the disease. The goal of a screening mammogram is to find breast cancer when it’s too small to be felt by a woman or her physician. This type of mammogram usually involves two x-ray pictures, or images, of each breast. The images make it possible to detect tumors that cannot be felt as well as microcalcifications (tiny deposits of calcium) that may indicate the presence of breast cancer.
Diagnostic mammograms are performed if there are noticeable breast problems – like a lump or nipple discharge – or if abnormalities are found in a screening mammogram. Sometimes diagnostic mammograms are done for screening in women without breast problems who were previously treated for breast cancer. Diagnostic mammography takes longer than screening mammography because more images are taken to carefully study the area of concern. This type of mammography may also provide a closer look and clarify that an area that appeared abnormal on a screening mammogram is actually normal, or that an area of abnormal tissue is probably not cancer.
Digital and conventional mammography both use x-rays to produce an image of the breast. In conventional mammography, the image is stored directly on film whereas, in digital mammography, an electronic image of the breast is stored as a computer file. This digital information can be enhanced, magnified, or manipulated for further evaluation.
Three-dimensional (3D) Mammography
Also known as Tomosynthesis, this is a type of digital mammography that produces a 3D image of the breast by using several low dose x-rays obtained at different angles. For tomosynthesis, the breast is positioned and compressed in the same way as for a mammogram, but the x-ray tube moves in a circular arc around the breast, and the information is sent to a computer, which produces a focused 3-D image of the breast. The 3-D images enable doctors to see inside the breast more clearly than with a standard 2-view mammogram. While 3-D mammograms expose the breasts to more radiation than standard mammograms, they remain within FDA-approved safe levels for radiation from mammograms.
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