Mammograms are probably the most important tool doctors have to help them diagnose, evaluate, and follow breast cancer. Safe and highly accurate, a traditional mammogram is a two-dimensional x-ray photograph of the breast. The technique has been in use for about 30 years.
Doctors have been evaluating a variety of ways to improve the accuracy of mammograms, including using computers to create three-dimensional images. In February 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a three-dimensional mammogram system (called the Selenia Dimensions System).
Research showed that compared to traditional 2-D mammogram systems, the 3-D mammogram system:
- was 7% more accurate at identifying abnormal areas as cancer or as benign (not cancer)
- had fewer false positive readings that required further evaluation. A false positive is an abnormal area that looks like cancer, but turns out to be normal. Besides worrying about being diagnosed with breast cancer, a false positive means more tests and follow-up doctor visits; the process can be extremely stressful and upsetting.
- requires a slightly higher dose of radiation compared to traditional 2-D mammograms. Radiation exposure from an x-ray (including a mammogram) can increase the risk of future cancer, but that increase in risk is very small. Experts estimate that compared to traditional 2-D mammograms, the increased radiation exposure from a 3-D mammogram increases cancer risk by less than 1%.
Radiologists who plan to use the newly approved 3-D mammogram system must have 8 hours of training before using the system. Hospitals and mammography centers that have the new system also must follow specific procedures to make sure the system is used effectively and safely.
The 3-D mammogram system was just approved and will not be widely available for some time. So most women will still have screening mammograms done with 2-D technology. But any type of mammography is only effective when it's done. Regular screening mammograms starting at age 40 help diagnose breast cancer early, when it's most treatable. Research has shown that mammograms starting at age 40 save lives. If you're 40 or older and have an average risk of breast cancer, yearly screening mammograms should be part of your health care. If your breast cancer risk is higher than average, you may want to talk to your doctor about a more aggressive screening plan that makes the most sense for your situation.
There's only one of you and you deserve the best care possible. Don't let any obstacles get in the way of regular screening mammograms:
- If you're worried about cost, talk to your doctor, a local hospital social worker, or staff members at a mammogram center. Ask about free programs in your area.
- If you're having problems scheduling a mammogram, call the National Cancer Institute (800-4-CANCER) or the American College of Radiology (800-227-5463) to find certified mammogram providers near you.
- If you find mammograms painful, ask the mammography center staff members how the experience can be as easy and as comfortable as possible for you.
For more information on mammograms and other tests to detect breast cancer, visit the Breastcancer.org Screening and Testing section.