Screening vs. Diagnostic Mammograms

Women are no strangers to the word “mammogram.” Mammograms are used to screen for and detect breast cancer, but the term itself encompasses two types of procedures: screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. Depending on your unique medical situation and history, your doctor may recommend one or the other. Here’s what you need to know about screening vs. diagnostic mammograms.

Screening Mammogram

Often referred to simply as a “mammogram,” screening mammograms check for breast cancer using X-ray images of each breast. These X-rays can detect tumors that are too small to otherwise be noticed, as well as small calcium deposits that could indicate the presence of breast cancer.

Alongside clinical breast examinations, screening mammograms are one of the most effective tools for early detection. Women with no outward signs or symptoms of the disease receive screening mammograms, which are typically recommended beginning at the age of 50.If you are at an increased risk for breast cancer, talk to your doctor about when to start and how often to get a mammogram.

Diagnostic Mammogram

Like screening mammograms, diagnostic mammograms use X-ray images to detect breast cancer. However, a diagnostic mammogram is used when signs or symptoms of breast cancer have been detected. This could include a lump, breast pain, nipple discharge, or a change in the breast size or shape. These symptoms alone do not confirm the presence of breast cancer, however. Diagnostic mammograms help providers gain a better understanding of what is happening in the breast and whether further testing is needed.

Both screening and diagnostic mammograms use the same machines, but the latter typically takes longer to perform, as a greater number of X-ray images are needed to evaluate the breast more fully. This also means that the radiation dose will be higher.

Patients receiving either a screening or diagnostic mammogram can receive either negative or positive results. Negative results indicate that nothing suspicious was detected and that the patient doesn’t need to perform any follow-up action. Positive results occur when the radiologist detects an abnormality that requires more testing to determine whether cancer is present.

What to do if you receive abnormal or “positive” breast imaging results

First, don’t panic. While receiving a positive result can be nerve wracking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that cancer is present. Additional testing in the form of a diagnostic mammogram (for those who have only received a screening mammogram), an ultrasound, a breast MRI scan, or a biopsy is necessary to determine whether cancer is present.

In addition, while mammograms are an effective screening tool for breast cancer, they aren’t 100% accurate, and false positives do occur. This is one of the reasons a positive result is typically followed up with further tests before cancer is confirmed.

What to do if breast cancer is confirmed

One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. That’s 13% of all women. When this happens, several things can impact the next steps. First, talk to your doctor to better understand your diagnosis. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and advocate for yourself. The American Cancer Society recommends asking your doctor the following questions:

  • Do you know the stage of the cancer?
  • If not, how and when will you find out the stage?
  • Would you explain what the stage means in my case?
  • How serious is my cancer?
  • Based on the stage of the cancer, how long do you think I’ll live?
  • Do you know if my cancer has any of these proteins: estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, or HER2?
  • What does it mean if my cancer has any of these proteins?
  • Does my cancer have any gene changes that might be helpful in choosing drugs for my treatment plan? 
  • What will happen next?

While there are many types of breast cancer, the most common ones include ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC), inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), and triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Depending on your cancer type and stage, your age and medical history, and other factors, your doctor may recommend a particular course of action. This can involve more than one type of treatment. Surgery and radiation therapy are two of the most common treatment options. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted drug therapy, and immunotherapy can also be used to treat cancer and may be recommended based on your specific case.

Remember: you are your own best advocate, and it’s okay to seek second opinions.

When to seek radiation therapy for breast cancer

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, kills and damages cancer cells using high-energy beams of radiation. Unlike treatments like chemotherapy, which impact the entire body, radiation therapy is highly targeted. Advanced technology like our linear accelerator allows us to specifically target cancer cells while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Radiation therapy is often used after surgery to lower the chance of cancer returning, to kill any remaining cancer cells surgery may have missed, or to treat cancer that has spread outside of the breast. Both external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy) are used to treat breast cancer.

Learn more about radiation therapy for breast cancer

We often treat breast cancer patients who have had breast-conserving surgery (BCS) or a mastectomy, or whose cancer has spread to other areas of the body. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, ask your doctor if radiation therapy would be a good option for you.

If you’re referred for radiation therapy and choose to work with Radiotherapy Centers of Kentuckiana, your first appointments will involve an initial consultation with our radiation team, a discussion about potential treatment options, and getting your consent for radiation treatment.

Has your doctor already referred you for radiation treatment? We’re here to support and encourage you. Call us today to schedule your first appointment with one of our radiation oncologists at the cancer center nearest to you.

Schedule Your Appointment Today

Treatment can’t wait. If you are referred to radiation therapy during your cancer care, you get to choose where to receive treatment. Call us today to schedule your first appointment at our clinic nearest to you.