Screening vs. Diagnostic Mammograms 
 
 
 
Mammograms are essentially an X-ray of the breast while it is compressed.  These images are used to detect breast cancer and other abnormalities that cannot be found by you or your doctor. A mammogram can detect cancer much earlier, when the prognosis for survival is much better and there are more treatment options. When breast cancer is found early, the five-year survival rate is 95 percent. Like almost all medical tests, mammograms are not 100 percent accurate, but they are the best method of early detection for breast cancer.

There are two types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.  The main difference between a screening mammogram and a diagnostic mammogram is its purpose.  A screening mammogram is used to detect breast abnormalities in women who show no cancer symptoms.  Two images of each breast are taken to look for abnormalities.  A diagnostic mammogram uses a more detailed, accurate X-ray than screening mammograms and is used when a screening mammogram detects an abnormality, or when a woman complains of a breast lump, nipple discharge, breast pain or other symptom.  Breast cancer survivors may need diagnostic mammograms in the first few years after surgery or treatment.

Breast cancer risk increases as a woman ages. Screening recommendations vary. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends biennial screening mammography for women aged 50 to 74 years. According to the American Cancer Society, women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam at least once every three years and beginning at age 40, women should have a clinical breast exam and screening mammogram every year. Ultimately, women should talk to their doctor and make an informed decision about whether mammography is right for them based on their family history, general health, and personal values.

Women who are at a higher risk for breast cancer should talk to their doctors about having annual breast MRI performed.  Those risks include:

  • Family history of breast cancer before age 50 or more than one relative with breast cancer
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Positive test for hereditary risk of breast cancer
  • Previous biopsy with high-risk lesion
  • Chest radiation therapy between ages 10 and 30

To prepare for your mammogram, it’s a good idea to:

  • Not wear deodorants, powder, perfumes or creams around your breasts or underarms
  • Wear an outfit with a separate top and bottom
  • Bring previous mammography results if you’re seeing a new radiologist
  • Schedule your mammogram when your breasts are least sensitive, usually the week before your period

Mammograms are just one tool to detect breast cancer.  Women should also do monthly breast self-exams and schedule annual clinical breast examinations with their gynecologist.

For a Physician Referral, call St. Mary's Medical Center at (561) 882-9100.