Despite all the attention October brings to breast cancer awareness, the disease remains a significant health risk for many women. In fact, one in eight women in the United States will be affected by breast cancer at some point in her lifetime—the second leading cause of cancer death in women.
Emphasis has long been placed on the importance of regular examinations and mammograms to test for signs of breast cancer to find the disease in its earliest stages, increasing the chance of successful treatment and survival.
But did you know that not all mammograms are created equal? As technology continues to evolve, it’s important to keep abreast of the different types of screening tools available so that you can have an informed discussion with your primary care physician or other health care provider.
Standard (2D) mammography uses low-dose x-ray imaging to create detailed images of breast tissue to detect abnormalities including lumps or tumors. Standard mammography takes pictures from the front and side of the breast. Digital breast tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography, uses the same x-ray technology as 2D, but captures multiple slices of the breast at many different angles. From a patient’s perspective, the procedure is nearly exactly the same—it just takes a few seconds longer.
Here are three things to know about 3D mammography and why it is often considered superior to a 2D mammogram:
- 3D mammography reduces call backs. Women may be called back for more tests if an area on a mammogram looks abnormal, which is a stressful experience for the patient. Many times these “abnormal” results turn out to be false positives—or normal findings. Because the images in 3D mammography are brought together to create a crystal-clear 3D reconstruction of the breast, the technology gives radiologists the ability to detect and rule out abnormalities that may have looked suspicious with 2D mammography—reducing the need to call women back for additional imaging.
- 3D mammography more easily detects cancerous tissue in dense breasts. Dense breasts make it more difficult for standard mammograms to detect cancerous tissue because it appears white—just like dense breast gland tissue does—on the imaging. Unlike standard imaging, 3D mammography allows radiologists to look through breast tissue one millimeter at a time, seeing details inside the breast in a way never before possible, providing less chance for cancer to hide behind overlapping dense tissue.
- 3D mammography does not increase radiation exposure. Radiation exposure to the breast is very low in a 3D mammogram. Because 3D mammograms decrease the need for additional imaging after a screening exam, the overall radiation exposure to the screening population is expected to decrease as the technology becomes more widely available. The radiation dose for a combined 2D/3D mammography exam is well below the acceptable limits defined by the FDA. As with any x-ray, patients should inform their technologist before an exam if they are (or may be) pregnant.
The best chance a woman has for early detection of breast cancer is screening mammography, combined with manual self-examination and breast examination by an experienced doctor. These steps complement one another to offer most comprehensive defense against breast cancer. Women should talk to their doctor or other health care professional about how often to get a mammogram, and when to start the screenings.
South Shore Medical Center now offers 3D mammography. Talk to your physician or call 781-261-4442 to schedule your visit. 3D mammography is also available at South Shore Hospital’s Outpatient Imaging and Women’s Specialty Center, including evening and Saturday appointments. Call 781-624-4090 or visit to learn more.