An Overview of Screening and Diagnostic Mammograms

by Jacki Donaldson Patient Expert

Jacki Donaldson, a breast cancer survivor, describes what roles screening and diagnostic mammograms play in breast cancer detection and care.

Mammograms can be used for both screening and diagnostic purposes. Screening is recommended for all women, beginning at age 40, and allows radiologists to monitor breast tissue over periods of time. Sometimes, mammography can detect changes, lumps and bumps long before patients and physicians can feel them. Screening--which may be necessary prior to age 40 for those with a family history of the disease--is key for early detection and is intended for women who are asymptomatic, who are not experiencing any breast problems.

Screening mammograms typically consist of four x-ray views, two of each breast. After a technician takes pictures and reviews them for quality, the patient can leave, only to be called back if something suspicious is found.

Diagnostic mammograms start with the same four pictures but are supplemented with additional views, a physical exam, ultrasound, and sometimes MRI. This is because women receiving diagnostic mammograms are experiencing a problem--perhaps they've happened upon a lump, noticed nipple discharge or pain, or received a problematic screening mammogram. A diagnostic mammogram helps explain and diagnose concerns.

Diagnostic mammograms offer an in-depth look at suspicious areas. Many times, they offer peace of mind--because mostly, everything turns out fine.

Women receiving diagnostic mammograms don't usually leave the mammography facility until they receive an answer regarding a breast problem. A radiologist reads the mammogram right after it is completed and talks with the patient. And such is my life.

All of my mammograms are diagnostic in nature. Since I've had breast cancer and there's always something worrisome lingering about -- different-colored nipples, a mysterious nodule, an odd pattern of tissue -- my breasts are considered problematic. Every six months, I receive the whole diagnostic work-up: mammogram, physical exam, ultrasound, and MRI.

It's been more than two years since my breast cancer diagnosis. And for more than two years, this diagnostic process has given my doctors a complete, extensive look at my breast tissue. And it has delivered me peace of mind--because time after time, everything turns out just fine.

Jacki Donaldson
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Jacki Donaldson

Jacki wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Breast Cancer.