Living Well: 3D mammography improves early detection of breast cancer |

Living Well: 3D mammography improves early detection of breast cancer

Lauren Glendenning/Brought to you by Memorial Regional Health
Early detection typically refers to mammograms — X-rays of the breast — which Memorial Regional Health recommends for all women age 40 and older and earlier for some women based on risk factors.
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Thanks to early detection, the survival rate for women with breast cancer has been steadily increasing since the 1980s.

Early detection typically refers to mammograms — X-rays of the breast — which Memorial Regional Health recommends for all women age 40 and older and earlier for some women based on risk factors.

There are two types of mammograms: 2D, which take images from the front and side of the breast; and 3D, also known as breast tomosynthesis, which provides images of breast tissue from many different angles throughout the entire breast. The National Center for Health Research reports that finding abnormalities and determining which abnormalities are potentially worrisome may be easier with 3D tests; however, the tests are more expensive than 2D.

“There are no disadvantages to having this done instead of the traditional 2D mammogram from a medical perspective,” said Christine Winn, mammography technologist at MRH. “However, not all insurance companies cover 3D mammography, so check with your insurance provider to determine coverage.”

3D Mammography

Patients can receive 3D mammograms at their annual screening mammogram appointments at Memorial Regional Health. You will need a doctor’s order for the screening mammogram and can request 3D at the time of service, said Alicia Noland, radiologic technologist at MRH.

The Mammography and Diagnostic Imaging department at MRH reports the following as benefits of 3D mammography:

  • Reduces the need for additional imaging when the tissue is normal. Some perceived abnormalities on standard mammogram images are due to shadows of overlapping tissue. 3D mammography helps to see through the tissue, dramatically decreasing the “fake-outs” that sometimes look real on 2D images.
  • Detects slightly more cancers than a standard mammogram alone. Studies indicate that combining a 3D mammogram with a standard mammogram can result in about one more breast cancer detection for every 1,000 women screened when compared with standard mammogram alone. 3D mammography can detect smaller cancer earlier than 2D mammography.
  • Improves breast cancer detection in dense breast tissue. A 3D mammogram offers advantages in detecting breast cancer in people with dense breast tissue because the 3D image allows doctors to see beyond areas of density.

Risks and warning signs

While family history can play a role in a woman’s overall risk for breast cancer, many women with breast cancer had no family history of the disease. Because one of the most significant risk factors for breast cancer is being a woman, it’s important for all women to follow the screening recommendations.

Staying at a healthy weight throughout life helps reduce the risk of breast cancer and other health concerns. Women should also get adequate physical exercise and limit or avoid alcohol to reduce risk.

Breast cancer warning signs vary, but the most common signs are a change in the look or feel of the breast, a change in the look and feel of the nipple, or nipple discharge, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to breast cancer research.

Many healthcare providers still recommend self-exams because they help women stay more attuned to what’s happening with their bodies, which could increase the chance of early detection. In the shower or while lying down, move your entire breast in a circular motion from the outside to the center to check for lumps. Squeeze your nipple and check for discharge. Also, check your armpit areas.

One of the best ways to know your risk for breast cancer is by seeing your doctor regularly and discussing your lifestyle, family history and other factors. While there are no sure ways to prevent breast cancer, the American Cancer Society reports that some risk factors can be changed or lowered. Because a woman’s risk for breast cancer increases with age, two risk factors we can’t control are being female and aging.

Women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation are at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Talk to your doctor about genetic testing if you have a family history of breast, ovarian, fallopian tube or peritoneal cancer.

One online tool,, helps assess a woman’s risk of breast cancer during the next five years and up to the age of 90 (lifetime risk).

Mammograms at MRH

To schedule a mammogram at Memorial Regional Health, patients need an order from their health care provider. For more information, call the radiology department at 970-826-2230. To schedule an appointment, call 970-826-3150.

Do mammograms hurt?

A mammogram can be unpleasant, but its benefits could save your life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that mammograms are the best tests doctors have to detect breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before it can be felt.

Winn describes the procedure as follows:

  • Your breast is gradually pressed against the platform by a clear plastic plate. Pressure is applied for a few seconds to spread out the breast tissue. The pressure isn’t harmful, but you may find it uncomfortable or even painful. If you have too much discomfort, tell the technologist.
  • Next, the 3D mammogram machine will move above you from one side to the other as it collects images. You may be asked to stand still and hold your breath for a few seconds to minimize movement.
  • The pressure on your breast is released, and the machine is repositioned to take an image of your breast from the side. Your breast is positioned against the platform again, and the clear plastic plate is used to apply pressure. The camera takes images again. The process is then repeated on the other breast.

At Memorial Regional Health, one of four radiologists — Dr. Malaika Thompson, Dr. Scott Loomis, Dr. Fred Jones or Dr. Ashley Saverino —  would examine the 2D and 3D images to look for abnormalities that may be breast cancer. If the radiologist sees anything unusual, he or she will compare to previous mammograms that are available to determine whether additional testing is needed. Dr. Malaika Thompson, one of the MRH radiologists, has sub-specialty training in mammography. 

Additional tests for breast cancer may include more mammogram pictures using different techniques, ultrasound, MRI or, sometimes, a biopsy to remove cells for testing in a lab by doctors who specialize in analyzing body tissue (pathology testing).

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