When it comes to saving lives, mammograms matter. Safe and accurate, these X-ray tests to detect breast cancer are recommended annually for women 40 and over— and possibly earlier for patients with a family history of the disease.
However, not all mammograms are the same. There’s conventional film mammography, which has been available since the 1960s and was widely considered the best method for detecting breast cancer—until now. The new gold standard is digital mammography, a technology available at just 8 percent of breast imaging centers in the United States, including the MemorialCare Breast Center at Long Beach Memorial.
Digital mammography uses a similar technique to film mammography for capturing images of the breast. A specially trained technologist gently compresses each breast between two smooth plates and takes the images using X-rays. The difference with digital mammography is that there’s no film— the image is recorded directly into a computer. For patients, there are several benefits. First, the dose of radiation is lower. Also, there are fewer callbacks for retakes because radiology technologists see the picture almost instantly, and know immediately whether the image needs to be taken again.
For doctors, digital mammography also offers several advantages. The images can be enlarged and manipulated, similar to the way a digital photograph can be viewed on a computer screen. Additionally, digital images can be integrated with computer-aided detection (CAD) software programs that mark potential areas of concern.
But the biggest advantage of digital mammography is that abnormalities are more visible. Doctors can fine-tune the images so potential abnormalities are more easily detected, especially when viewing the mammograms of younger women who tend to have denser breast tissue that’s more difficult to see through.
“For women under 50, digital mammography has a clear advantage. We have a much better chance of catching a breast cancer at a very early stage,” says Angela Sie, M.D., director of breast imaging. Dr. Sie emphasizes that digital mammograms can only be performed at certified facilities like the MemorialCare Breast Center at Long Beach Memorial, which has FDA approval for digital mammography. “It’s important that a well-trained and highly experienced radiologist analyzes the images. A radiologist who subspecializes in breast imaging is the most appropriate physician to interpret mammograms and perform any additional exams or procedures,” she says. At Long Beach Memorial, there are three radiologists who are breast imaging subspecialists. Along with Dr. Sie, the team includes Brooke Caldwell, M.D. and Gretchen Stipec, M.D.
Digital mammography can be performed only at certified facilities such as the MemorialCare Breast Center.
Recently named a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiology, MemorialCare Breast Center screens about 24,000 women without symptoms who come in for annual checkups, and an additional 17,000 who have lumps or show other signs of breast disease. In addition to mammograms, the Breast Center offers other diagnostic exams, including ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as bone densitometry.
When a tumor is identified, the center also performs needle biopsies that allow the exact diagnosis of benign and malignant disease; ductography, which evaluates the breast ducts for cancer; and tumor localization procedures that are sometimes required prior to surgery for the removal of tumors. “Breast cancer is serious business and we know women want answers quickly,” says Dr. Sie. “To help ease women’s concerns, patients can receive their full workup for a breast lesion, including a biopsy if necessary, during the same appointment.” Additionally, second-opinion services are available to help patients make important medical decisions.