April 4, 2023
April 4, 2023

Why a 3D Mammogram Offers a More Thorough Screening

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Why a 3D Mammogram Offers a More Thorough Screening

Key takeaways:

  • 3D mammograms capture highly detailed images from different angles to produce static breast images or an interactive, animated breast image clip.
  • 3D mammograms can help radiologists identify breast tissue abnormalities, including architectural distortions, calcifications, masses, and breast density.
  • Advances in 3D mammographic screening improve early breast cancer detection rates.

3D mammography is the preferred screening modality of the American Society of Breast Surgeons.

Its greatest advantage is that it can detect small cancers and masses hidden in dense breast tissue much earlier than standard 2D mammography. This is because 3D mammograms capture up to 300 images from varying angles versus the two images that standard 2D mammograms typically get.

As a result, a regular screening program using more advanced imaging technology like 3D mammography can help detect cancer earlier.

Treatment options are easier and more plentiful when cancer is detected early or when lesions and tumors are too small to identify with traditional mammography.

How a 3D Mammogram Machine Works

A 3D mammogram, also called digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT), looks and operates similar to a computed tomography (CT) scan or traditional mammography.

However, with DBT, the X-ray tube moves in an arc over your compressed breast to take multiple pictures from different angles.

Instead of capturing the images on film, the pictures are digitally captured and reconstructed by a computer.

With 3D mammography, the radiologist can review 200-300 images, compared to only two (on average) derived from a 2D mammogram.

The computer’s algorithms qualify dense breast tissue and produce a more precise image than conventional 2D mammography.

How Mammography Has Evolved

Although your annual mammogram is now part of your healthcare routine, mammography is a relatively new imaging modality.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers began to develop modern mammography machines. It was the late 1970s before the American Cancer Society recommended mammography as a tool in the detection of breast cancer.

In the nearly 50 years since, mammographic imaging has become ever more refined. Now, digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT)— also known as 3D mammography—makes your annual breast cancer screening mammogram more reliable than ever.

In the last 10 years, mammography has made significant gains in producing clear images. Digital mammography (also called full-field digital mammography), computer-aided detection, and 3D mammograms have all changed how physicians, radiologists, and oncologists review mammographic images.

These changes help give you a high-quality annual screening, which improves early breast cancer detection rates and diagnostic follow-ups.

Digital mammograms have helped mammography similar to how digital cameras simplified photo processing. Instead of using film, low-dose X-rays are now converted into digital images of your breasts’ internal structures and tissues.

Radiologists now use 3D mammograms to look for abnormalities like calcifications, masses, and tissue densities that could mean breast cancer. A thorough review of the images can also turn up abnormalities such as ductal carcinomas.

A 3D mammogram captures multiple breast images from different angles. Multiple images from different angles produce static breast images.

When put together, those images can provide radiologists with an interactive, animated clip of breast images, which can help women better understand their results.

Research-Based Benefits of 3D Mammograms

3D mammogram: woman with glasses smiling

According to an article in JAMA Oncology, growing evidence shows that 3D mammography, when combined with standard 2D digital mammography, is more likely to detect cancer than conventional mammograms alone.

3D mammography also decreases the likelihood that your clinician will recall you for additional imaging.

One study by Drs. E.A. Rafferty and E.F. Conant regarding screening outcomes for more than 23,000 women showed that, compared to digital mammograms, DBT resulted in a 41% increase in the detection of invasive breast cancers and a 16% reduction in call-backs for follow-up imaging. RadiologyInfo.org cites other studies that support these findings.

Another study by Per Skaane concluded that in a screening environment, digital breast tomosynthesis has a much higher cancer detection rate, including invasive cancer detection, than a standard mammogram.

Lastly, one study investigated the role of digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) in identifying lesion characteristics. Digital subtraction (comparing contrast and non-contrast images) is the part of DBT that allows for more exact identification of lesions in dense breast tissue.

How 3D Mammography Can Help All Women

The American Cancer Society and the American Society of Breast Surgeons prefer DBT annual screenings because of their superior imaging results.

This screening modality can:

  • Find small, hidden breast cancers that standard 2D or digital mammography miss
  • Lower recall rates
  • Result in fewer biopsies, false positives, and unnecessary tests
  • Improve the likelihood of detecting multiple tumors
  • Better pinpoint the location, size, and shape of breast abnormalities
  • Help medical practitioners identify breast cancer in women with no related symptoms
  • Provide better dense breast tissue imaging: Dense breast tissue shows up as a white area on a standard mammogram. That means the opaque areas often hide abnormal tissue or growths.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is too common, affecting 1 in 8 women.

3D mammograms produce clear, detailed images (called tomosynthesis images) that can help healthcare professionals detect breast cancer earlier, especially if you are 65 or older.

How To Prepare for Your 3D Mammogram

woman looking straight at the camera

If you’ve never had a mammogram before, here are some mammogram preparation guidelines to help you prepare for any mammogram:

  • The technician will place your breast on the machine’s base compression plate. A second plate compresses and flattens your breast tissue to a uniform thickness.
  • If you have tender breasts, you may be more comfortable with breast compression if you schedule your mammogram right after your menstrual period.
  • Deodorants, perfumes, and lotions can interfere with image clarity, so avoid using them before your screening.
  • Wear comfortable clothing, preferably a separate top and skirt or pants. Remove jewelry that could interfere with the images, such as necklaces or earrings.

Potential Risks of 3D Mammography

As with all X-rays, during a 3D mammogram, you are exposed to low-level ionizing radiation during a mammogram.

The radiation dosage of a 3D mammogram is similar to that of film mammography and only a little more than in standard 2D digital mammography.

Because a 3D mammogram is usually combined with a standard mammogram, the level of radiation may be greater than a standard mammogram alone. Some newer 3D mammogram machines can create 3D and 2D images at the same time, which lowers the amount of radiation.

Remember, no cancer screening method is 100 percent accurate. While healthcare professionals recommend 3D mammograms, you may still receive a false negative or positive, especially if you have dense breasts.

3D Mammography: A Life-Saving Advance in Breast Health Medicine

Advances in mammography have led to the development of 3D mammograms.

Also called digital breast tomosynthesis or DBT, 3D mammograms can help identify ductal carcinoma and other breast abnormalities. While 3D mammography can benefit all women, it can especially help women with dense breasts.

3D mammographic screening improves early breast cancer detection rates over conventional mammography. As a result, that means earlier treatment and more treatment options if you do develop breast cancer.

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