What is a MAMMOGRAM or MAMMOGRAPHY?
A mammogram, mammogram test or mammography exam, is a specific X-ray test that produces an image of the inner tissues of a breast on film. By creating these images, radiologists can analyze them for any abnormal findings. Mammography’s most common use is to aid in the early detection and diagnosis of breast (mammary gland) diseases.
The mammogram exam is specifically designed and performed to help identify certain characteristic masses and/or microcalcifications that might lead to cancer. However, a mammogram can also help in identifying other forms of cysts, calcifications, and tumors within the breast. With regular breast self-examination (BSE), it is currently recognized as the most efficient screening method to detect early breast cancer.
Like many x-rays, a mammogram’s aim to use as low of a dose or amplitude of X-rays as possible (usually around 0.7 mSv) to create the images. There are many types of mammograms now, most machines giving the test will use longer wavelength X-rays (typically called Mo-K) than those used for taking an X-ray of a person’s bones.
After mammogram images are taken by a technologist, the radiologist will review them and send them to the physician or specialist who ordered them. Most results are usually available within 10 days. In the United States, facilities that perform mammograms send the results directly to your health professional's office and must send you a copy of the test results (written in language that is easily understood) within 30 days.
It should be strongly pointed out that abnormal mammograms do not necessarily mean that a cancer is present. Other tests may be performed for further clarification of an abnormal mammogram. And likewise, a normal mammogram does not exclude that there is presence of cancer.
It is not uncommon to be asked for other test or even tests to be performed after a mammogram so additional views of the area in question can be obtained. In fact, the mammogram "work-up" process has frequently become formalized into three stages: a screening mammography, diagnostic mammography after the screening, and finally a biopsy if or when necessary. Click here to read more about these stages.
Many research centers are developing several new technologies to improve conventional mammography where computers assist in the interpretation of the x-rays. Two of the more recent and used advances in mammography include digital mammography and computer-aided detection.
Digital mammography, also called full-field digital mammography (FFDM), is a mammography system in which the x-ray film is replaced by solid-state detectors that convert traditional x-rays into electrical signals. These types of detectors are similar to ones you might find in your digital camera. These new electrical signals are used to produce images of the breast that can be seen on a computer screen. However, from a patient's point of view, there’s little difference in having a digital mammogram from having a conventional film screen mammogram.
Computer-aided detection (CAD) systems use a digitized mammographic image to search for abnormal areas of density, mass, or calcification that may indicate the presence of cancer. This system can use the images that are taken from either a conventional film mammogram or a digitally acquired mammogram. The computer software interprets the image and highlights these areas on the images that are ‘abnormal’, alerting the radiologist to the need for further analysis.
Mammography as a whole has existed for over four decades, starting when the first x-ray units dedicated to breast imaging were being used. Mammography became standard practice as a screening device by 1976 when its value in diagnosis was recognized by many different medically valued sources.
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