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What’s the difference between a screening mammogram and a diagnostic mammogram?

What’s the difference between a screening mammogram and a diagnostic mammogram?

There is a lot of talk, especially during the month of October, encouraging women to get their annual mammogram. And, that is extremely important. Dr. Susan Kennedy, breast imaging radiologist at Wake Radiology, explains why a screening mammogram serves as an essential baseline for understanding a woman’s breast health and how a diagnostic mammogram is different.

Screening Mammogram or Diagnostic Mammogram

It’s essential for women over 40 years old to have a screening mammogram each year. After a screening procedure, some women receive a recommendation to get a diagnostic mammogram. The difference between the two – and the purpose for each – can be confusing. Let’s discuss what each exam means.

A Screening Mammogram

Screening mammograms simply look for signs of cancer. These procedures are x-ray exams of the breasts done yearly in women who have no breast symptoms or changes in their breast exam.

The goal of a screening mammogram is to detect  breast cancer as early as possible – when it’s too small to be felt by a woman or her doctor. Detecting breast cancer early greatly improves a woman’s chance for successful treatment and increases her treatment options.

A screening mammogram usually takes two pictures of each breast. Some women, such as those with large breasts, may need to have more pictures in order to image all the breast tissue. After obtaining these standard views, the patient is done and the exam is then read by the radiologist. At Wake Radiology, all screening mammograms are read exclusively by breast imaging specialists, not general radiologists.

A Diagnostic Mammogram

When something is abnormal or difficult to determine, a woman may be referred for a diagnostic mammogram. For example, a woman with a breast problem a lump, breast pain or nipple discharge or an abnormal area found on a routine screening mammogram would get a diagnostic mammogram.

Diagnostic mammograms are also done in women who need short interval, follow-ups exams as a result of a prior diagnostic exam. Also, women that were previously treated for breast cancer may get a diagnostic exam.

During a diagnostic mammogram, the breast images are reviewed by one of our breast imaging radiologists almost immediately. It’s important to do this review while the patient is there so that additional pictures can be taken if additional images are needed. In some cases, special images known as spot views or magnification views are used to further evaluate a specific area of concern. Breast ultrasound may also be performed in addition to the mammogram images, depending on the type of problem and the findings seen on the patient’s mammogram.

A diagnostic mammogram is usually interpreted in one of three ways:

  • It may reveal that an area that looked abnormal on a screening mammogram is actually normal. When this happens, the woman may return routine yearly screening.
  • It could show that an area of concern probably is not cancer, but the radiologist may want to watch the area closely. When this happens, it’s common to ask the woman to return to be re-checked in four to six months.
  • The results could also suggest that a biopsy is needed to find out if the abnormal area is cancer. If your doctor recommends a biopsy, it does not mean that you have cancer.

Schedule Your Mammogram Today

Screening mammograms save lives. If you haven’t had one this year, consider scheduling a 3D mammogram at one of our multiple locations throughout the Triangle. To request an appointment, call us today at 919-.232-4700 or click here to schedule your mammogram appointment.

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