Mammography employs x-rays to produce detailed images of the breasts. These studies can help detect early stages of breast cancer by identifying changes in the breasts, oftentimes before you or your doctor can feel them.
Annual mammograms are recommended for women beginning at age 40. Any woman with a family history of breast cancer is a candidate for mammograms at an earlier age. Your doctor may also suggest you have a baseline mammogram. This is done when you are younger to provide an initial image that can be used for comparison with mammograms taken later in life.
Mammograms are either screening or diagnostic. Screening studies can be used to identify changes in the breasts when women have not detected anything themselves and do not have any symptoms of breast disease. Diagnostic mammograms are performed when the patient or her doctor has detected a lump, noticed nipple discharge or when a screening mammogram reveals some other abnormality in the tissues of the breast. There have been a number of advancements in mammography in recent years. Until recently, mammograms were “analog”, meaning they were produced on high-sensitive x-ray film. More recently, digital mammography has emerged, whereby images are captured with electronic detectors and computers, allowing faster exams and easier storage and viewing of images.
A companion technology called “computer aided diagnosis” (or CAD) is now used in many facilities. CAD systems use a computer to screen the mammogram before being interpreted by the radiologist. The computer system analyzes the image and highlights areas that may require closer review. CAD is a supplemental technology, intended to augment the reading capabilities of the radiologist. It is not a replacement for a thorough interpretation by a qualified radiologist.