Mammograms & Other Tests

Mammograms & Other Tests


Having the regular, recommended screenings before signs or symptoms appear is the key to finding breast cancer in its early, treatable stages. Depending on your age and risk factors, screening may include a clinical breast exam by your nurse or doctor, mammograms or other tests.

Types of Screenings:

  • Clinical breast exam: According to the Cancer Research UK the breast screening programme invites all women between 50 and 70 registered with a GP in the UK to attend every 3 years for a mammogram to screen for breast cancer. Your doctor will examine your breasts for lumps or other changes and may be able to feel lumps you have missed. He or she will also check for enlarged lymph nodes in your armpit (axilla).
  • Mammogram: A mammogram, which uses a series of X-ray images of your breast tissue, is currently the best imaging technique for detecting tumours before you or your doctor can feel them.
    • Screening mammograms are performed on a regular basis — about once a year — to check your breast tissue for any changes since your last mammogram.
    • Diagnostic mammograms are used to evaluate a breast change detected by you or your doctor. During a diagnostic mammogram, the radiologist performing the exam can take additional views to evaluate the area of concern more closely.

Mammogram limitations:

  • A certain percentage of breast cancers, sometimes even lumps you can feel, don't show up on X-rays – or give a false-negative result. The rate is higher for women in their 40s because women of this age and younger tend to have denser breasts, making it more difficult to distinguish abnormal from normal tissue.
  • Mammograms may indicate a problem when none exists, or give a false-positive result. This can lead to unnecessary biopsies, to fear and anxiety and to increased health care costs.
  • The skill and experience of the radiologist reading the mammogram may also have a significant effect on the accuracy of the test results. In spite of these drawbacks, however, most experts agree mammography is the most reliable screening test for most women.

Tips for your next mammogram:

Other Helpful Tests

  • Computer-aided detection (CAD). In traditional mammography, a radiologist reviews your X-rays. Therefore, the skill and experience of the radiologist play a large part in determining the accuracy of the test results. In CAD, a computer scans your mammogram after a radiologist has reviewed it and identifies highly suspicious areas on the mammogram, allowing the radiologist to focus on specific spots. Using mammography and CAD together may increase the cancer detection rate.
  • Digital mammography. In this procedure, a radiologist uses computer technology to alter contrast and darkness of images, making it easier to identify subtle differences in tissue. Digital images can be transmitted electronically, so mammograms can be read by remote experts, if desired. Digital mammography has been found to be helpful in evaluating dense breast tissue.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This technique uses a magnet and radio waves to take pictures of the interior of your breast. Although not used for routine screening, MRI can reveal tumours that are too small to detect through physical examinations or are difficult to see on conventional mammograms. MRI doesn't take the place of mammograms, but rather is performed as an additional (adjunct) study of the breast.
    • MRI isn't recommended for routine screening on women at average risk because it has a high rate of false-positive results. It's also expensive, not readily available and requires interpretation by an experienced radiologist. However, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) now recommend that women who have a moderate or high risk of breast cancer because of their family history should start having screening mammograms every year in their 40's.
    • Recent recommendations propose that women with newly diagnosed breast cancer in one breast have a one-time MRI. MRI can detect breast tumours in the opposite (contra lateral) breast missed by mammograms. The test can also detect additional lesions in the affected breast. However, whether finding early tumours in this situation improves treatment outcomes — and deaths from breast cancer — is still unknown
  • Breast ultrasound (ultrasonography). Your doctor may use this technique to evaluate an abnormality seen on a mammogram or found during a clinical exam. Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of structures deep within the body. Because it doesn't use X-rays, ultrasound is a safe diagnostic tool that can help determine whether an area of concern is a cyst or solid tissue. But breast ultrasound isn't used for routine screening because it has a high rate of false-positive results — finding problems where none exist.

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