When you hear that your mammogram results are abnormal, it’s normal for panic to set in as your mind immediately jumps to cancer. However, you don’t need to worry.
Not that you should ignore your imaging results. One in eight women, according to statistics, will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. But an abnormal finding on a mammogram may simply be due to dense breasts, a harmless cyst, or image distortions.
If you do have an abnormal mammogram result, your clinician will likely want to take a closer look to rule out cancer.
The short answer is no, not usually.
Of all women who receive regular mammograms, about 10 percent will get called back for further testing, and from those, only about 0.5 percent will be found to have cancer.
Most likely, something harmless is causing the mammogram to trigger further investigation, and you’ll be called in for additional screening. It does feel scary, we know, but additional screening may help you learn quickly that nothing is wrong.
However, if your medical provider finds breast cancer, the chances are good that early diagnoses will save your life and prevent you from overly invasive measures.
This is why regular screening mammograms are so important; early detection is the key to avoiding late-stage breast cancer discovery.
Many causes of abnormal mammograms are benign and harmless. Your medical team may request a follow-up if they find one of the following::
The type of follow-up exams your healthcare provider will recommend will depend on their initial findings from your screening mammogram.
Your physician may start by ordering one of the following tests:
While the technology of a diagnostic mammogram and a screening mammogram both use low-dose X-rays, there are some differences:
Tomosynthesis is the newest technology in mammogram machines. When combined with 2D mammography, it can detect breast cancer with nearly 30% higher accuracy.
A breast ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to look at the inside of your breasts. It can help distinguish between a benign cyst and a solid mass that may become cancerous.
This ultrasound also allows your healthcare provider to see how well blood is flowing to areas in your breasts.
Similar to how mammograms are done with X-ray machines specifically designed for imaging the breasts, a breast MRI also uses special equipment — dedicated breast coils. This allows high-resolution and high-quality imaging of one or both breasts.
A biopsy is a minimally intrusive procedure in which a needle takes a small portion of the tissue from the area of your breast that is of concern. A pathologist then examines the tissue to determine if the tissue is cancerous or benign.
Breast biopsies usually recommended for follow-up mammogram tests include fine needle biopsy, core needle biopsy, and surgical biopsy.
When your mammogram results came back abnormal, you may ask yourself in a panic, “What does that mean?!”
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by this, it can be easy to forget what to ask about the next steps.
Here are few questions you can ask your medical provider:
It’s essential to compare your mammograms, because there may have been significant changes in your breasts over time. Comparing earlier mammograms gives your medical provider a baseline and could alert them to a problem that requires further investigation.
Some younger, pre-menopausal women often have dense breast tissue. Older women, usually post-menopausal, often have fattier breast tissues.
Milk glands and ducts and fibrous tissue make up areas of dense breast tissue. You need to know about your breast density for two important reasons:
In 38 states, the law requires that women be advised of their breast density. If you have dense breast tissue, you and your medical provider may choose to do follow-up exams such as breast MRI, ultrasound, or biopsy to be sure about your diagnosis.
When women reach menopause, dense breast tissue is often replaced by fattier tissue because estrogen is in low supply. This makes mammograms in post-menopausal women easier to read.
When there are liquid cysts or solid lumps in your breast, it can cause an abnormal mammogram.
If new nodules show up on your mammogram, or if your clinician can feel lumps, you’ll need an ultrasound to evaluate them.
While cysts are usually benign, solid lumps could be cancerous. This is why a core needle breast biopsy is generally recommended.
The radiology technician may see calcium deposits (microcalcifications) on a screening mammogram.
Microcalcifications typically aren’t a result of cancer. But if they appear in patterns and are clustered together, they may be a sign of precancerous cells or early breast cancer.
If microcalcifications are found during your screening mammogram, you may be called in for further investigation. A breast biopsy will likely be recommended.
Radiologists sometimes ask patients to return for magnification views. A magnification view is performed to evaluate and count microcalcifications and their extension by using a magnification device. This device brings the breast away from the film plate and closer to the x-ray source.
If the calcifications are suspicious, the radiologist will recommend a breast biopsy.
Federal law in the United States requires radiologists to give each mammogram a BI-RADS (Breast Imaging and Reporting Data System) rating based on your mammogram results. The lower the score, the better. Here’s what the scores mean:
If you get an abnormal mammogram report back, don’t panic. But also, don’t ignore it.
While it is important to follow up as recommended by your healthcare provider, abnormalities show up all the time in mammogram results due to many factors.
When booking your mammogram, it’s important to know that 3D mammograms offer a more thorough screening than traditional 2D mammograms.
They take three-dimensional pictures from varying angles to uncover cancers hidden by dense breast tissue. As a result, the radiologist can see up to 300 pictures, as compared to just four from a regular 2D mammogram.
To learn more about mammograms, please check out: