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Care Credit

Types of Breast Imaging Exams

January 21, 2020

The importance of the breast imaging exam cannot be stressed enough. Breast cancer in women ranks among the leading forms of cancer, affecting women of all demographics. However, breast cancer does not need to be fatal. Regular breast cancer screenings and breast imaging can detect cancer early, when most treatable, long before it can be felt. 

Early detection of breast cancer

40,000 women die from breast cancer each year.  The most lives are saved from breast cancer when women get screened every year, starting at age 40.  Starting yearly mammograms at age 40 has helped cut breast cancer deaths by more than 40 percent.  Mammograms can find tumors too small to be felt on physical exam. 

The importance of the breast imaging exam

The American College of Radiology, along with all major health care groups, agree that yearly screening starting at age 40 saves the most lives.  It is especially important for women with a high risk of developing breast cancer to remain vigilant. Women with a history of breast cancer in their family must be proactive in screening for breast cancer. It is equally important that women over 40 perform the proper checkups and screenings.

Breast imaging techniques

There are a number of methods used when performing a breast imaging exam. Different imaging tests capture different data. Because of this, it is important to discuss with your doctor which breast imaging exam is right for you.

Mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs all play a role in the detection of breast cancer but mammography remains the first defense in breast cancer screening. 

3-D mammography

3-D mammography is the gold standard of breast imaging. It differs from 2-D mammograms by capturing several images as opposed to two. These images are then put together to form a 3-D picture of the breast. 3-D mammograms have been shown to reduce the number of false positives that may occur during regular mammograms.

Mammography is the only test shown to reduce breast cancer deaths. Most women have annual mammograms as a part of their regular check-ups. In terms of breast cancer screenings, mammograms are an effective tool to quickly assess the health of the tissue and determine if further action is needed.

3-D mammograms are often a more efficient method than standard mammograms. Because they take multiple images to form a 3-D image, they are more likely to detect abnormalities. As with so many other imaging techniques, the 3-D mammogram is especially helpful to women with dense breast tissue.

Breast ultrasound imaging tests

The breast ultrasound imaging technique generates images of the inside of the breast. This is accomplished by using sound waves to create an accurate image of the soft tissue inside the breast. The sound waves travel through the breast, bouncing off the tissue and traveling back to the transducer to generate the breast image.

There are a number of reasons your doctor may direct you toward an ultrasound. If a self-examination or mammogram shows signs of a lump, an ultrasound can illuminate more details on the lump. A breast ultrasound can capture an image of the mass that will determine if it is a liquid-filled cyst, or a solid tumor.

Breast MRI

The breast MRI is an excellent imaging technique to use in conjunction with mammography. MRIs utilize magnets and radio waves to capture several images of the region being scanned, e.g. the breast. These images are then combined to create highly detailed images of the breast for further examination.

The most common reason for a breast MRI is to determine the full extent of a known cancer. Women who have had a biopsy indicating signs of cancer may be instructed to get an MRI. This will give the doctor a better understanding of the situation, including affected areas outside of the breast.  With this knowledge, your doctor will be able to develop a treatment for the disease.

Women who are considered to have a high risk of cancer, or have a family history of the disease, are sometimes encouraged to have breast MRIs because it helps capture a fuller picture of the breast tissue, allowing doctors to make more accurate diagnoses.

Preventative measures

Each type of breast imaging exam offers a unique perspective for the doctor assessing your situation. You can see that in some cases, it makes sense to use multiple imaging techniques in order to see the full extent of the disease. To make sure the cancer remains treatable, it is important to be proactive.  In fact, starting screening at age 40 will save 100,000 more lives every decade than starting at age 50.  Yearly screening is important, even for those women who do not have a family history of breast cancer. 

Final thoughts

Remember, mammography saves lives. They provide a fuller picture of what is happening within your breast tissue. Stay on top of your health with frequent checkups and annual screenings. 

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