Mammography is a specific type of X-ray to study the breast after a woman has suspected developing signs of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is a common type of cancer in women and a leading cause of premature deaths in older women. Mammography is a specific type of X-ray study of the breast and the actual test is called a mammogram. The two types of mammograms that are done include:
- Screening mammogram: This is done in women who have no symptoms of breast cancer
- Diagnostic mammogram: It is done to evaluate abnormalities seen screening mammogram or when sign or symptoms of the breast disease are present
Purpose of Screening Mammography
The purpose of screening mammography is to detect cancer in early stages. Advances in treatment of cancer have considerably improved the cure rates; however a major factor that determines prognosis is the stage of cancer. Response to treatment and prognosis is better when the cancer is diagnosed in early stage. Screening mammography can help to detect small tumours that cannot be felt by manual palpation and before they can spread. Studies indicate that a screening mammogram possibly detects a cancer about two or three years before it can be felt.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) of United States of America recommends that screening mammograms should be done for:
- woman more than 40 years of age every 1 to 2 years, as age is the strongest risk factor for breast cancer (older women are at higher is the risk of developing the disease). [Read: Breast Cancer Screening at 40 not 50]
- Women younger than 40 who are at higher than average risk of breast cancer. Your doctor can guide you regarding your need to have mammograms before the age of 40 and how often to have them.
According to various studies the rate of detection of breast cancer in early stages (when it is more likely to be curable) is higher in women who have regular mammograms. Advances in technology like new digital mammography and computer-aided reporting are useful to enhance and magnify the mammograms for easier detection of tiny calcifications and other abnormality.
Purpose of Diagnostic Mammography
Diagnostic mammography is used to assess changes found during screening mammogram, or evaluates signs and symptoms of breast cancer such as a lump, discharge from nipple, skin thickening, a change in size or shape of breast. During diagnostic mammography the radiologist may ask for additional views to magnify the area with suspicious lesion to get a better and detailed picture to help make an accurate diagnosis.[Read: Symptoms of Breast Cancer]
If needed other tests such as an ultrasound of the breast, breast biopsy, breast-specific positron emission tomography (PET) scans as well as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be done. But all these investigations are done to complement the findings of mammography and not in place of it.
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