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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. A 3D screening mammogram is a woman’s best tool for detecting any changes in breast tissue. This exam is done yearly in women who have no breast symptoms or changes in their breast exam. WakeRad UNC REX offers 3D screening mammograms at all of our outpatient breast imaging locations. 

The goal of a screening 3D 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. 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, like a lump, breast pain, 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 mammogram.

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 still in our office so that additional images can be taken if they 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 health problem or findings seen on the patient’s screening 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 to having a routine, annual screening mammogram.
  • 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 for another diagnostic exam in four to six months.
  • The results could also suggest that a biopsy is needed to find out if the abnormal area is cancer. This would be to gather more information. 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 outpatient breast imaging centers located throughout the Triangle. You can request an appointment online or call our Scheduling Team at 919-232-4700.

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