If you have breasts, you’ve probably heard about mammograms at some point in your life. If you’re above 40, you may have even had one. Mammograms are an important part of detecting breast cancer early enough to treat it.
But recently there have been some shakeups in the breast cancer screening world. Ultrasounds and 3D mammograms are starting to make their way onto the scene as better forms of screening. Read on to learn more about 3D mammogram vs. ultrasound and how each can help detect breast cancer.
What Is a Mammogram?
Quite simply, a mammogram uses x-ray technology to take images of the breast and look for any abnormalities. In a 2D mammogram, the machine takes images of “slices” of breast tissue from the front and sides. A 3D mammogram takes images of the breast from many different angles, making it easier to see if something might be cancer, or just overlapping “layers” of tissue.
What Is an Ultrasound?
An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to create images inside of the body. When those sound waves hit something denser than normal tissue, they bounce back, creating an image. You may be familiar with this as a way to monitor a baby during pregnancy.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Screenings
Before we get into whether a 3D mammogram or an ultrasound is best for detecting cancer, it is important to know why we do these procedures in the first place. After all, as anyone who has had a mammogram can attest, they aren’t fun, and they can get expensive. So why do we have to use either of these procedures?
Detecting breast cancer early, while it is still small and hasn’t yet spread to other parts of the body, is key to survival. In the US, mammograms have helped reduce breast cancer mortality by 40 percent since 1990 due to early detection. Even if you do a self breast exam regularly, a mammogram may detect underlying changes in the breast two years before you feel them.
The Numbers on Each
For every 1,000 standard 2D mammograms performed, about 5 people will get diagnosed with breast cancer. According to a 2016 study, 3D mammograms could detect an additional 4 cancers per 1,000 people. Ultrasound, by comparison, found 7 cancers more than standard mammograms found per 1,000 people.
Another big difference among these procedures is the size of the cancer they can detect. A standard 2D mammogram will pick up on cancer about one inch in diameter. A 3D mammogram can pick up on cancers about half that size, which makes a big difference when it comes to treatment plans.
Why Breast Density Matters
When you start reading about 3D mammograms and ultrasounds, you commonly come across the words “breast density”. About 50 percent of people with breasts in the US have what qualify as dense breasts. This means their breasts have more supportive tissue (dense tissue) than fatty tissue (nondense tissue).
The reason this is such a big deal in breast cancer screenings is that dense tissue can mask potential cancers on a mammogram. It can be harder to tell the difference between normal tissue and a cancerous mass if the whole breast is comprised of dense tissue. But there is significant evidence that suggests that 3D mammograms can help sidestep this issue.
How Each Procedure Works
If you’ve had a mammogram before, you’ll be familiar with the procedure. The breast gets compressed between two metal plates that shoot x-rays through it to take images of the tissue. The only difference between a 2D mammogram and a 3D mammogram is that the 3D one lasts a few seconds longer.
You may also have had an ultrasound before, or you might have seen one in television or movies. The technician applies a water-based gel to the area being scanned to help create better contact between the wand and your body. Then they move the ultrasound wand over the area being scanned; this should be a painless procedure.
A New Standard Procedure?
Unfortunately for those of us with breasts, an ultrasound is not likely to replace mammograms as the standard breast cancer screening any time soon. The main reason for this is that ultrasounds are a diagnostic tool, not a screening tool. Unlike a mammogram, they can’t image the entire breast at once, making them better for addressing individual areas of concern.
There is also concern that the accuracy of ultrasound screenings depends on the skill of the operator. If you have a technician who isn’t as experienced or who is having an off day, the ultrasound could miss a part of your breast. Mammograms don’t have that risk since they take an image of the whole breast at once.
However, you may see 3D mammograms start showing up as the standard breast cancer screening procedure in the next few years. From the patient’s perspective, a 2D mammogram and a 3D mammogram are about the same. Ultrasounds will likely continue as a powerful diagnostic tool if a potential problem shows up on a screening.
When to Get Screened
If you have breasts, the best practice is to perform a self breast exam every month. This can help identify any changes in the breast early so that your doctor can take a look at them. If you do find any new or suspicious lumps, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Beyond that, you should start getting mammograms, whether 3D or standard, every year or two after you turn forty. Studies show that one in six breast cancers occurs in people between ages 40 and 49. This should be a part of your regular gynecologic exam every year.
Learn More About Breast Cancer Prevention
Getting screened regularly for cancer is the most important thing you can do to prevent it. No matter where you fall on the 3D mammogram vs. ultrasound debate, make sure you’re getting screened. Talk to your doctor about the best option for you and your body.
If you’d like to learn more about breast health and preventing breast cancer, visit the rest of our site at PINK Breast Center. We provide mammography and other screening services to the people of New Jersey in a comfortable, serene environment. Learn about our 3D mammography services today.