What are your mammogram options?
By: Ellie Foster, MPH
Program Manager, Learning Resource Center
Millions of mammograms are done each year as part of routine health exams but as technology changes, your options for mammography may change, too. In Maine, more than 1,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. And nearly 200 people die from breast cancer each year.If breast cancer is found early, it doesn’t have a chance to spread to other parts of the body and is much easier to treat. It's important to know what your options are for monitoring your breast health.
What are the options?
So what is the difference between a regular mammogram and a digital mammogram?
A traditional mammogram is an x-ray image of your breast. The images from a mammogram help your doctor find cancer or other irregularities. Up until recently, most mammograms were done by pressing the breast against two plates and then taking a x-ray. The image would then show up on film. You can think of this a bit like taking a picture with an old fashioned film camera.
A digital mammogram still takes a picture of your breast, but it uses high resolution electrical signal to get the image. The image is then shown on a computer screen.You can think of this like taking a photo with a digital camera and the image is saved as a file on a computer. This makes it easier for doctors to look back at your old mammograms and look for changes over time.
The newest technology is the three-dimensional mammogram . A 3D mammogram takes images of the breast from many angles, making a layered 3-dimensional image. The radiologist is then able to look at the breast, one thin image at a time, almost like turning the pages in a book. This means there is much more detail in each image.
What’s the difference?
The actual procedure is almost the same for all types of mammograms. You will need to have your breast pressed against two plates for both digital and film mammogram while the image is taken. During a 3D mammogram, the x-ray machine moves around the breast and takes many images.
The real difference is in the quality of the image. A 3D mammogram shows much more detail than a regular film or digital mammogram.
Which one is better?
A regular film mammogram and a digital mammogram take an image from the front and the side so it only gives a 2 dimensional view. Research shows that a digital and film mammogram have almost the same rates of breast cancer detection.
3D mammograms are better at finding more invasive cancer than digital or film mammograms. The images are also clearer so it’s less likely to get a false alarm than a regular mammogram. Since this is a new technology, there needs to be more research to find out just how much different a 3D mammogram is from a regular film or digital mammogram.
Many medical facilities in Maine have the ability to do a digital or 3D mammogram. In the MaineHealth network, you can get a 3D mammogram at these locations:
Maine Medical Center
Pen Bay Medical Center
Lincoln Health Care (after August 2017)
Southern Maine Health Care
Waldo County General Hospital
If you can’t get either a digital or 3D mammogram, it doesn’t mean you should skip a regular film mammogram. Here are the American Cancer Society screening guidelines for early detection of breast cancer:
These guidelines are for women at average risk for breast cancer. Women with a personal history of breast cancer, a family history of breast cancer, a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer (such as BRCA), and women who had radiation therapy to the chest before the age of 30 are at higher risk for breast cancer, not average-risk. (See below for guidelines for women at higher than average risk.)
Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so. The risks of screening as well as the potential benefits should be considered.
Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
Women age 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years, or have the choice to continue yearly screening.
Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.
All women should be familiar with the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms associated with breast cancer screening. They should also be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider right away.
Staying up to date with your breast cancer screenings is the best way to detect cancer early and keep you healthy. Ask your doctor today if you have questions about mammograms or breast cancer prevention.