What is the role of mammography in the workup of breast cancer?

Updated: Dec 27, 2019
  • Author: Pavani Chalasani, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: John V Kiluk, MD, FACS  more...
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Mammography is a low-dose x-ray−based modality used to image the breast. It is currently the best available population-based method for detecting breast cancer at an early stage. [88, 92, 93]

Mammography is used both for screening to detect a cancer and for diagnostic workup of patients after a tumor is detected. Screening mammography is performed in asymptomatic women, whereas diagnostic mammography is performed in symptomatic women (ie, when a breast lump or nipple discharge is present or when an abnormality is found during screening mammography).

Mammography is sensitive to microcalcifications that develop in breast tumors with sensitivity at less than 100 µm. Mammography often detects a lesion before it is palpable by clinical breast examination and, on average, 1 to 2 years before noted by breast self-examination.

Recent advances in mammography include the development of digital mammography and the increased use of computer-aided diagnosis (CAD) systems. [94] CAD systems have been developed to help the radiologist identify mammographic abnormalities.

Digital mammography allows the image to be recorded and stored. With computer technology, digital mammogram images can be magnified and the image modified to improve evaluation of specific areas in question. Digital images can be transmitted electronically, decreasing the time to second opinion without the risk of losing the film.

In a cohort study of women aged 50-74 years, which used data from the Ontario Breast Screening Program, computed radiography (CR) was 21% less effective than digital direct radiography (DR) for breast cancer detection; however, DR was equivalent to screen-film mammography (SFM). [95, 96]

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) estimates the benefit of mammography in women aged 50-74 years to be a 30% reduction in risk of death from breast cancer. For women aged 40-49 years, the risk of death is decreased by 17%. [97]

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