Screening mammograms vs. diagnostic mammograms: what’s the difference?
The mammogram that is recommended annually for women starting at age 40 (or younger for those with certain risk factors) is called a screening mammogram, since it is a test to have routinely when no symptoms or other signs of suspected disease, such as a breast lump, are present.
A diagnostic mammogram is a more in-depth exam that involves taking more pictures of breast tissue from different angles, so that doctors can take a closer look at any abnormalities. For example, if a mammogram is suspicious or inconclusive, doctors may order a diagnostic mammogram to obtain additional views. In some situations, such as finding an abnormality in a physical breast exam, a doctor may order a diagnostic mammogram without the prior step of a screening mammogram.
Mammography frequently asked questions
When should I have my first mammogram? And how often should I have them?
Delaney Radiology joins the American College of Radiology and other reputable medical societies in recommending that all women have their first mammogram at age 40 and continue to have annual mammograms. Research continues to demonstrate the lifesaving benefits of starting mammograms at 40 and continuing them annually for as long as a woman remains healthy.
Depending on risk factors, starting screening mammograms at an even younger age may also be warranted. For example, women who have had breast cancer before or who have risk factors such as a family history of breast cancer, or who have genetic abnormalities associated with breast cancer risk, should consult with their primary care physician or gynecologist about the age to begin screening and the frequency of screening.
Do I need any other breast cancer screenings?
Women with dense breast tissue, as well as those at higher risk of breast cancer, should also consult with their providers about whether they should have additional screenings to supplement the annual mammogram, such as breast MRI or breast ultrasound.
What about the radiation from mammograms?
Mammograms use very low-dose radiation. In addition, at Delaney Radiology, we follow rigorous protocols to verify the safety of our equipment, including equipment testing on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. Research does not suggest that mammograms increase breast cancer risk, and the demonstrated—and potentially lifesaving—benefits of annual mammograms greatly outweigh any small, theoretical risks of exposure to medical radiation.
What is the best time to have a mammogram?
The week after your menstrual period is generally best. During the week before your period, your breasts are likely to be more tender and sensitive, so we also recommend that you avoid having your mammogram during this time.
For a mammogram or any other imaging exam, if there is any possibility that you may be pregnant, it is important that you inform your technologist. Prior to scheduling your mammogram, it is also important to discuss any problems you may currently be experiencing with your breasts with your doctor. Also keep your doctor informed about your medical history, especially:
- Hormone use
- History of past surgeries
- Family or personal history of breast cancer
Who will read my mammogram?
Your mammogram will be read by one of our highly experienced radiologists. All of our radiologists are certified by the American Board of Radiology, have received special training in digital mammography including 3D imaging, read a large volume of mammograms annually, undergo annual performance audits, and remain at the forefront of breast imaging through continuing medical education specific to breast imaging and disease.
When and how will I find out the results of my mammogram?
Delaney Radiology will send you a letter written in clear language detailing the results. We also send the radiologist’s comprehensive medical report to your physician. The vast majority of women receive a negative or normal report. You may receive a letter indicating that the radiologist has seen something that is clearly benign, such as a cyst. Sometimes we want to see you back before another year, such as a six-month follow-up mammogram of one breast or an ultrasound exam. It is not unusual to be called back within a few days of your mammogram with a request that you return for additional mammograms or an ultrasound exam of the breast. The great majority of such “call-backs” prove to be negative or confirmatory of benign findings such as cysts, benign calcifications, or lymph nodes, so if you get a call from us, please don’t panic!
If our radiologists see a significant or suspicious finding that will require further analysis with imaging or a biopsy, we follow-up and track your progress to ensure that a final diagnosis is established.
- When you are called back for your exam, you will be taken to a private dressing area to undress from the waist up—this includes removing any jewelry. We will provide you with a gown to put on that opens in the front.
- Your exam will be conducted by a female technologist who specializes in performing mammograms. She will help you into position at the mammogram unit so that the following procedure can be repeated for each breast:
- Your breast will be placed on a special platform. A clear plastic plate will be lowered to compress your breast. This helps spread and even out the tissue so that quality images can be created.
- Your breast will be compressed only long enough for the images to be taken—our technologists are trained to make every effort to balance your comfort with the need for quality images.
- The technologist will go behind a glass shield to operate the mammogram unit and take the several images of the breast. You will be asked to shift position slightly between views, as the 3D mammography unit creates both a 2D image and multiple images of tissue at different depths.
- The technologist will then return to help you reposition for imaging the other breast.
The entire exam process takes about 15 minutes.