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Digital Mammograms

By Jacki Donaldson

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 

I’m not yet 40—the magical age for women to begin receiving mammograms—but I’ve had breast cancer. That makes me a perfect candidate for digital mammography, an updated version of the widely accepted and most effective form of testing for breast cancer, a disease expected to strike 178,480 women in 2007.

Breast cancer will kill roughly 40,460 women in the same year. Clearly, screening for breast cancer is critical. I’m happy to be in the loop.

I’ve had six mammograms, five of the conventional film variety and one digital mammogram. Standard film mammograms work like this: a technician positions each breast, one by one, between flat panels and snaps x-ray images, or mammograms. She processes the photos on film cassettes and gives them to a radiologist who views them using a light box and then files them in the office archives. The radiologist sends a detailed letter to inform my doctors of the test results, and if I ever need to pick up copies of my mammography films, I formally request them with 24 hours notice.

My sixth mammogram was digital. The examination experience was no different than the other five mammograms—positioning and compression of the breast is exactly the same—and while all mammogram techniques use x-rays to produce an image of the breast, there are key differences between film and digital mammography formats.

In film mammography, an image is created directly on a film. It’s a good screening tool—it has been used successfully for more than 35 years—but it’s less sensitive for women with dense breast tissue, which is common among younger, premenopausal women.

Studies indicate that 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers detected by self and physical examinations were not visible on film mammography. Additionally, the use of film can be problematic. Images can’t be altered and if exposure is poor, contrast is lost and cannot be regained. Also, for hospitals, keeping track of film mammograms is not a perfect system. Many of us have heard stories of mammograms lost or misplaced between procedures or in the transfer to different facilities. 

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