Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women in the U.S. It is second only to skin cancer.
Fortunately, deaths caused by breast cancer have declined over the past 20 years. Many experts believe this is, in part, a result of improved screening and treatment techniques. Mammograms are the preferred diagnostic test to find breast cancer in its early stages. They do this by using X-rays to scan the breasts for cancer.
For many years, the only option was mammograms that record images of the breast on film. Now, digital mammograms are available. Digital mammograms store and analyze the information using a computer.
All mammograms work by sending X-rays through the breast tissue to obtain images. These pictures are then analyzed for abnormalities and assessed for changes from previous tests. Whether your doctor recommends a film or digital mammogram, your testing experience will be the same.
To get the best images possible in either a film or digital mammogram, the technologist needs to flatten and compress your breasts before taking images. Your breasts will be flattened between two special plates before X-rays are used to take the image. For both types of mammograms, the entire test lasts about 20 minutes.
X-rays have been used for nearly a century to detect breast cancer. But the modern-day film mammogram was invented in 1969. In this procedure, images are recorded on film much in the way a traditional film camera takes pictures.
In a digital mammogram, X-rays are still used. But they are turned into electric signals that can then be stored in a computer. This is similar to the way digital cameras take and store pictures.
Although film mammograms are very effective, some research suggests that they may miss between 10% and 20% percent of breast cancers.
A study published in September 2005 in the New England Journal of Medicine compared digital mammograms to film mammograms. The study involved 49,000 women in North America with no known signs of breast cancer. The women were screened using both digital and film mammograms at the beginning of the study and again one year later. Breast cancer was found in 335 of the women. The researchers determined that digital mammograms were superior to film mammograms for three groups:
Digital mammograms did not prove to be more beneficial for post-menopausal women over age 50 that do not have dense breasts. Additionally, both forms of mammogram had the same rate of false positives.
It cannot be told from the study whether the increased use of digital mammography over film mammography would result in fewer deaths. However, the researchers did note that the types of cancer caught by digital mammograms after being missed on film are the forms of the disease that can be fatal.
Women younger than 50, premenopausal or perimenopausal (those with a menopause duration of less than 1 year) women, and women with dense breasts might benefit from digital mammogram screenings. For other groups of women, research indicates that film and digital mammograms have similar detection results.
Digital mammograms cost much more than film mammograms. And the vast majority of mammogram facilities in the U.S. do not have digital capabilities. However, even if you are a woman that might benefit from digital mammograms, not having access to digital mammogram technology does not mean you should forego a regular film mammogram.
The American Cancer Society recommends that all women age 40 and above have an annual mammogram to screen for breast cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) does not recommend screening for women in their 40s. For women between the ages of 50 and 74, USPSTF experts say women should have mammograms every two years.
If you are at high risk for developing breast cancer, you might also benefit from an annual MRI in addition to a yearly mammogram.