Understanding mammograms and breast cancer screening

Understanding mammograms and breast cancer screening

The gold standard in breast cancer screening, mammography offers an x-ray view of the breast. The American Cancer Society recommends women start getting them at age 40, and every year thereafter.

“The reason that we do it every year is that we’re looking for subtle changes in the pattern over time. So if something begins to become distorted or a mass shows up or calcifications that are suspicious show up, those are the things that we’re looking for,” says Dr. Gail Santucci, diagnostic radiologist with Lee Memorial Health System.

Certain breast tissue is easy to read, others make it more difficult.

“She’s our favorite candidate for screening because she has very small tissue. Tumors would show up very easily in a patient like this,” says Dr. Santucci.

The denser the breast, the harder it is to spot minor variations. Doctors are looking at two images of each breast. At least eight to ten percent of patients are called back to take more pictures.

“With those four views we are taking of the breasts, we aren’t looking up close at particular areas, we are kind of getting an overview and look for anything that triggers us to look closer,” says Dr. Santucci.

In itself, it doesn’t mean the test was ‘positive’.

One to two percent of patients will undergo a biopsy. Only a half a percent end up having breast cancer. So getting a call back after a mammogram is no reason to hit the panic button.

“I think that’s one of the most misunderstood portions of mammography. People become very concerned when they get a call,” says Dr. Santucci. “It could be that the tissue overlaps funny on the mammogram pictures and it looks like it could be distorted by a mass, when in fact it’s just normal tissue. It could be that we see a mass on the mammogram and we’re not sure if it’s a cyst or if it’s solid.”

View More Health Matters video segments at leememorial.org/healthmatters/