By the end of 2020, 7.8 million women diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous five years have survived. Based on this statistic, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that breast cancer has become the world’s most prevalent cancer.
The WHO aims to lower cancer mortality rates by 2.5% per year. That can help avoid 2.5 million breast cancer deaths between 2020 and 2040. However, early breast cancer screening is key to achieving that goal.
Thankfully, with scanning centers and popular screening tools such as breast ultrasounds, mammograms, and breast MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), you can gain access to regular early detection.
In this article, we’ll look at a mammogram vs. ultrasound for breast cancer screenings.
Mammography is a breast imaging procedure that gives an X-ray image of your breasts. Regular mammograms are the best way for your oncologist to find breast cancer at an early stage.
Sometimes, a mammogram can help detect breast cancer up to three years before you feel a cyst, lesion, or any abnormal change in your breast tissue.
During a 2D mammogram, you’ll stand in front of a special X-ray machine. Your radiologist will place your breast on a plastic plate while another plate will firmly press your breast from above.
These plates flatten the breast and keep it still while taking the X-ray. After getting the top and bottom X-rays of your breast, your radiologist will take the side view as well. It’s common to feel some pressure during a mammogram.
A 3D mammogram follows this procedure—except that instead of creating only four images from two angles, 3D mammography produces several images from all possible angles to create a three-dimensional model of your breast.
Again, the mammography procedure occurs in two phases—a screening mammography and a diagnostic mammography.
In the former, your oncologist tries to detect breast changes in women without symptoms or new breast abnormalities. And with a diagnostic mammogram, your oncologist investigates the suspicious breast changes.
Ultrasound screening is commonly used to study a developing fetus, heart and blood vessels, muscles, and tendons, and abdominal and pelvic organs. Beyond that, your radiologist would recommend an ultrasound scan when you get an abnormal mammogram.
The ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to look for tumors in the breast when they don’t show up on X-rays (American Cancer Society).
In a breast ultrasound scan, your healthcare provider moves a wand-like device called a transducer over your breasts to get their images.
The transducer sends high-frequency sound waves (too high-pitched and inaudible for you) that bounce off your breast tissue. It then picks up the bounced sound waves to develop pictures of the inside of your breasts.
By now, you have a fair idea of a mammogram vs. ultrasound. Let’s now see the differences in imaging methods and usage cases.
Mammograms use X-rays (low-dose radiation), while ultrasound uses sound waves.
Microcalcifications (small calcium deposits) can be early signs of breast cancer. Breast ultrasounds don’t detect these.
For women younger than 45 years, a breast ultrasound might work. However, for women older than 60, mammography is preferred (Journal of the Association of Basic Medical Sciences).
On the other hand, mammograms do not work well with high breast density, which is more common with younger women, those aging 44 ± 7 years.
A breast ultrasound or a diagnostic mammogram may be used after an abnormal mammogram. It can also guide a health practitioner through a breast biopsy.
You should consult your healthcare practitioner about which screening method is right for you. However, some women will need to closely review their options due to a few factors:
A mammogram is especially important for older women, women with a family history of breast cancer, and women with any other risk factors.
If you have dense breast tissue, it can be hard for a mammogram to detect cancer. At this point, your oncologist would order an ultrasound.
However, if you are obese or have large breasts, you might not get accurate images from a breast ultrasound—a mammogram is best. This is because the ultrasound wave signals find it difficult to penetrate the dense breast tissue to picture what’s underneath.
The American Cancer Society offers these recommendations for regular breast cancer screenings:
However, if you find breast lumps or some other abnormality, don’t wait for your annual appointment. Consult with your healthcare provider right away.
You can also take ezra’s five-minute assessment to learn more about your risk for breast cancer.
Here are a few tips on how you could prepare for your mammogram screening.
You can also explore the possibility of a breast MRI. An MRI of the breast, along with a mammogram can help detect breast abnormalities early. Learn more about ezra’s full-body MRI which includes the breasts and 12 other organs.