An expanding field of both diagnostic and preventative medicine, mammography is promoted in large part to facilitate early detection of cancer and other diseases. Mammograms often allow physicians to detect and treat ailments years before they might have been noticed by the patient. Mammography utilizes low-dose X-ray systems to collect images of the breast and surrounding areas. A “mammogram” refers to the procedure of conducting a “mammography exam” which entails the collecting of breast images and their resulting analysis.
Mammography: An Overview
The two functions which mammography most often serves are screening and diagnostic. Screening mammograms are preventative in nature and are recommended in at least annual frequency to women, especially over the age of 40, to preemptively discover any cancer development. Diagnostic mammograms are used to collect more data and further investigate any potentially dangerous threats if a patient or physician discovers a physical abnormality via observation or examination. The field has experienced a large amount of innovation in recent years and has expanded into a plurality of different treatment methods and options.
Digital mammography is also referred to as “full-field digital mammography (FFDM)”. Digital mammography, like the name would suggest, allows physicians and technologists to capture images digitally rather than physically on film. Rather than printing onto conventional X-ray film, digital mammography machines use computer technology to digitize and electronically capture images generated through the use of ionizing radiation (X-rays). Using a digital means of collecting images makes it possible to use lower dosages of radiation and allows more expedient digital dissemination and storage.
Computer-Aided Detection (CAD)
Not to be confused with Computer-Aided Design, Computer-Aided Detection systems are programmed to scan digital mammogram images for abnormalities that could indicate the existence of cancer within a patient. This developing technology allows physicians to more confidently and accurately assess a patient’s condition or risk of cancerous activity by providing a “second set of eyes”, or additional means of imaging evaluation. The FDA estimated that the use of CAD systems in mammography evaluation resulted in an increase in “early detection rates by as much as 23.4 percent” (“Literature Support for CAD”, ACR.org). Insurance companies, radiologic associations, and other medical factions have begun to favor CAD systems as a means of increasing diagnosis accuracy as the technology continues to advance and these systems become more widely used.
Breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques provide a noninvasive alternative to using ionizing radiation (X-rays) for collecting images. MRI images provide several benefits over more conventional radiation-based imaging. MRI results are more readily digitized, making them quicker and easier to transfer, disseminate, and store. MRIs also have the capacity to provide more detailed results and images, allowing for more complete and accurate diagnoses. MRIs are often utilized to shed better light on a suspicious abnormality that may be difficult to assess with a mammography image alone. Finally, MRIs nullify the risk of radiation damage because they utilize different technology to obtain internal images rather than employing radiation.
Breast tomosynthesis refers to the process of using advanced imaging technology to create three-dimensional models by taking multiple pictures at various angles. The process is not unlike the process of collecting sliver-like images at multiple angles and then processing the images into a 3-D likeness the way CT (computed tomography) scans are generated.
Breast tomosynthesis requires a slightly higher dose of radiation, incrementally raising the level of risk involved with undergoing the scan. However, the level of radiation required still falls within the acceptable levels as mandated by the FDA and the associated higher risks are thus considered nominal. Breast tomosynthesis has made possible greater accuracy rates in cancer diagnosis and detection, as well as reducing the number of superfluous tests and procedures undergone when results from other types of initial tests were not as clear.
The field of mammography is advancing steadily. New technologies rapidly develop and increase radiologists’ and physicians’ capabilities of recognizing, evaluating, treating, and preventing the development of cancer and similar diseases that endanger women today. Mammography technologies are relatively inexpensive, safe for routine use, and accurate enough to allow widespread application. The use of mammography is saving female lives around the globe and allowing for safer, faster, and more accurate evaluation from diagnosis to treatment. Mammography can provide a valuable tool in any radiologist’s skillset and can greatly enhance a radiology clinic’s offerings to their patients and clients.
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