What’s Different About a Diagnostic Mammogram?

If you’re a woman age 40 or older, you’ve probably had a mammogram. Mammograms play an essential role in the early detection of breast cancer. Regularly screening for breast cancer through routine mammograms can spot early signs of breast cancer. This allows for prompt treatment and higher survival rates.

While there are different guidelines for breast cancer screenings, most experts recommend that women at average risk begin having screening mammograms at age 40. Screening mammograms should continue every one to two years after that.

A diagnostic mammogram is different from a screening mammogram. If you’ve been told you need a diagnostic mammogram, you may have many questions and fears. With a better understanding of the process, you can gain a little extra peace of mind.

What Is a Diagnostic Mammogram?

There are two primary kinds of mammograms—diagnostic mammograms and screening mammograms.

A diagnostic mammogram is typically used to help diagnose the cause of symptoms such as a lump or nipple discharge. This type of mammogram may also be recommended as a follow-up test if your screening mammogram is unclear.

A screening mammogram is a scan taken on a routine basis to detect breast cancer.

When a Diagnostic Mammogram Is Needed After a Screening Mammogram

If you’ve been told you need a diagnostic mammogram after having your annual screening, don’t panic. It’s pretty common to require follow-up testing after screening mammography. Just because you need a diagnostic mammogram does not mean you have breast cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that fewer than 1 in 10 women requiring follow-up testing after an annual mammogram are diagnosed with breast cancer.

There can be multiple reasons why a follow-up diagnostic mammogram may be recommended. For one, the images captured by the screening mammogram may be unclear or difficult to read.

Follow-up testing may also be recommended if the radiologist reading your screening mammogram spots something suspicious in the breast tissue or sees an area of breast tissue that seems inconsistent from the rest of the breast.

While it’s possible for any woman to need a diagnostic mammogram, it’s more common for certain women. Women who have dense breast tissue, which means the breasts are made up of more fibrous and glandular tissue than fatty tissue, often require additional testing.

That’s because dense breast tissue appears white on a mammogram, which is also how cancerous cells can appear. This technical issue can make it difficult to detect small cancerous tumors in the breasts, so further breast imaging may be necessary.

Additional testing, such as diagnostic mammography, may also be recommended for those with breast implants, making capturing detailed images of the breasts more challenging.

Other Reasons You May Need a Diagnostic Mammogram

In some cases, diagnostic mammograms may be recommended even if you’ve never had a screening mammogram.

If you experience symptoms or signs of breast cancer, such as a breast lump, swelling and pain, or changes in the size or shape of the breast, talk with your OB/GYN or another women’s healthcare provider about what you’re experiencing. Your provider will likely perform a clinical breast exam and recommend a diagnostic mammogram.

You may also need diagnostic mammograms if you have any risk factors that require earlier (before age 40) or more frequent mammograms, such as a personal or family history of breast cancer.

What to Expect From a Diagnostic Mammogram

If you’ve ever had a screening mammogram, you’ll be familiar with the process required for a diagnostic mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray that captures detailed images of the breast tissue, and the basics are the same for both screening and diagnostic mammograms.

While diagnostic mammograms can be performed using either traditional 2D mammography or 3D mammography, a 3D mammogram is often recommended to capture the most detailed images possible. Having these enhanced images can help a radiologist and your medical providers determine whether breast cancer is present.

When you arrive for a diagnostic mammogram, you’ll be asked to remove your bra and shirt. Once you’re in the mammography suite, a technologist will move you into several positions to capture clear images of the breasts.

A screening mammogram takes scans of both breasts. A diagnostic mammogram, however, usually focuses on only the breast affected by symptoms or where suspicious tissue was located. In some cases, both breasts may be scanned.

While a screening mammogram typically takes about 15 minutes, expect a diagnostic mammogram to take a little longer. During this type of mammogram, the technologist takes more images of the breast than they do for a screening mammogram. A radiologist or interpreting physician will be present during the scan to review the images in real time and request additional images as needed.

Images also often focus on specific parts of the breast, including those identified as suspicious by a medical provider or during a previous screening.

Following a diagnostic mammogram, you may receive your results before leaving the office. You’ll also get a letter outlining the mammography results, similar to the one you receive after a screening mammogram.

Based on those results, your medical provider will recommend next steps. They could recommend additional testing or ask you to return for your regular screening mammogram the next year.

Need to schedule a mammogram? We make the process simple and convenient.

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