A screening mammogram is a low dose x-ray that can reveal a breast cancer years before it can be felt as a lump. Between 85 and 90 percent of all breast cancers can be detected through mammography. A screening mammogram takes about 15 minutes and involves two views of each breast and is for patients with no abnormal breast symptoms. Radiologists review the exam after the patient has left and results are sent in writing within one week. If additional views are needed, patients are called within 24 hours of interpretation and offered an appointment for a diagnostic mammogram within 48 hours.
All mammography machines at the Mass General/North Shore Breast Health Center use digital technology. With digital mammography, the radiologist reviews electronic images of the breast using special high-resolution monitors. The physician can adjust the brightness, change contrast and zoom in for close ups of specific areas of interest. Being able to manipulate images is one of the main benefits of digital technology. Another convenience of digital mammography over film-based systems is it can greatly reduce the need for retakes due to over or under exposure, reducing your exposure to X-rays.
The Breast Health Center experts agree with the guidelines of the American Cancer Society, which recommends women start yearly mammograms at age 40. In addition to yearly mammograms, women 40 and older should also get a breast exam by a healthcare professional every year (women in their 20s and 30s should have a breast exam at least every 3 years). Patients with a first-level family history of breast cancer that developed before menopause should talk with their physicians. They may recommend starting mammograms at a younger age and seeking additional risk assessment and consultation with our breast experts.
Tomosynthesis is a new type of mammogram. Also called 3D mammography, it takes images from multiple angles and then builds a 3D image that a radiologist can manipulate, providing a clearer, more accurate view of the breast. Read more
A diagnostic mammogram is problem-solving exam for patients who have abnormal breast symptoms, a history of breast cancer, breast implants or who have had a screening mammogram that has suspicious or abnormal areas needing further review. Diagnostic exams usually take 30 minutes and provide additional breast views for a more comprehensive examination. A radiologist specializing in breast imaging is on site and reviews and interprets exams while patients wait. If a suspicious area is detected, patients can be scheduled for a follow-up appointment or diagnostic procedure within 48 hours.
Using high-frequency sound waves, a physician can evaluate palpable breast lumps to determine whether they are a fluid-filled cyst (not cancer) or a solid mass (which may or may not be cancer). This may be used along with mammography.
Some women -- because of their family history, a genetic tendency, or other factors – should add a breast MRI in addition to a mammogram as part of their yearly breast screening regimen. A breast MRI uses magnetic fields to create an image of the breast. MRI can help distinguish between benign (noncancerous) and malignant (cancerous) areas. During the procedure, a dye is injected through a vein in the arm. The dye makes a tumor much brighter than the surrounding breast tissue and visible on the MRI scan. Although MRI can detect tumors in dense breast tissue, it cannot detect tiny specks of calcium (known as microcalcifications), which account for half of the cancers detected by mammography. MRI can be a good tool for breast cancer screening when used together with mammography in certain groups of women at higher risk.