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Digital Mammograms: A Clearer Picture

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women in the U.S. It is second only to skin cancer.

Fortunately, deaths caused by breast cancer have declined over the past 20 years. Many experts believe this is, in part, a result of improved screening and treatment techniques. Mammograms are the preferred diagnostic test to find breast cancer in its early stages. They do this by using X-rays to scan the breasts for cancer.

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Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free women’s preventive services, including mammograms, birth control and well-woman visits. Learn more.

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For many years, the only option was mammograms that record images of the breast on film. Now, digital mammograms are available. Digital mammograms store and analyze the information using a computer.

How do film and digital mammograms work?

All mammograms work by sending X-rays through the breast tissue to obtain images. These pictures are then analyzed for abnormalities and assessed for changes from previous tests. Whether your doctor recommends a film or digital mammogram, the experience will be the same.

To get the best images possible in either a film or digital mammogram, the technologist needs to flatten and compress the breasts before taking images. Breasts will be flattened between two special plates before X-rays are used to take the image. For both types of mammograms, the entire test lasts about 20 minutes.

X-rays have been used for nearly a century to detect breast cancer. But the modern-day film mammogram was invented in 1969. In this procedure, images are recorded on film much in the way a traditional film camera takes pictures.

In a digital mammogram, X-rays are still used. But they are turned into electric signals that can then be stored in a computer. This is similar to the way digital cameras take and store pictures.

How do rates of detecting breast cancer compare for film and digital mammograms?

Although film mammograms are very effective, some research suggests that they may miss between 10% and 20% percent of breast cancers.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared digital mammograms to film mammograms. The study involved 49,000 women in North America with no known signs of breast cancer. The women were screened using both digital and film mammograms at the beginning of the study and again one year later. Breast cancer was found in 335 of the women. The researchers determined that digital mammograms were superior to film mammograms for three groups:

  • Women under age 50
  • Women with dense breasts
  • Women who have not yet gone through menopause, or who have been in menopause less than one year
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