Digital Mammography & Ultrasound
Breast cancer can be detected in its early stages through self- and clinical breast examinations and screening mammograms. Early detection is important because tumors that are small and have not spread (metastasized) are more likely to be treated successfully. Three types of regular screenings are the keys to early detection:
- Breast self-examination
- Clinical breast examination
- Screening mammograms
Learn more about breast cancer screening techniques, including how to perform a breast self-examination and guidelines for screening.
Women should perform self-examinations monthly to check for lumps or abnormalities in the breasts. If any abnormality is detected in a clinical or self-examination, your doctor will order a mammogram and/or an ultrasound to determine if the lump is a cyst or a tumor. Please click on the topics below for more information on digital mammography and ultrasound imaging.
- Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Breast ultrasound
- Further diagnostic testing
A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray screening of the breast. For most women, it is the single most valuable tool for early detection of breast cancer. A mammogram allows the radiologist to identify breast cancer before a lump or mass can even be felt. Earlier detection can mean higher success rates in treating breast cancer.
At Houston Methodist, we use all-digital mammography — meaning the images generated are digital rather than on film. Digital mammography is considered more sensitive than traditional film mammography. With digital mammography, the radiologist can magnify specific areas of the mammogram and adjust the contrast so abnormalities are easier to see. Studies show that digital mammography is better than conventional film mammography, particularly for women with dense breasts.
The digital mammography we perform also includes computer-aided detection (CAD). CAD systems highlight abnormal areas of density, mass or calcification in a breast image to help alert the radiologist to the need for further analysis.
- Screening mammograms are conducted on a regular basis — usually every one to two years in women once they reach the age of 40. This study is performed for patients with no signs or symptoms of breast problems and no prior personal diagnosis of breast cancer. Two views of each breast are taken, with compression used to minimize the amount of radiation you will be exposed to. Most patients experience little or no discomfort. The screening X-rays are taken by a certified mammography technologist and interpreted by breast radiologists. Houston Methodist offers three-dimensional mammograms, which are particularly helpful in women with dense breast tissue.
- Diagnostic mammograms are used to investigate specific changes in the breast, such as a lump, a pain, nipple thickening or discharge, or a change in breast size or shape. A diagnostic mammogram may also be used to clarify the results of a screening mammogram.
What to Expect on the Day of Your Mammogram
It is important for the radiologist to compare your current mammogram with any previous studies. If you have had mammograms at another institution, please bring them with you at the time of your appointment. You can also let us know at the time you schedule your appointment, and we will help you obtain your prior images. Some cancers are very hard to see in a single mammogram and may only become visible if the previous image is available for comparison.
The day of your mammogram, you should not use deodorant, powder or lotion of any kind under your arms or on your breasts because the chemicals from these products can interfere with the reading.
The mammogram itself involves compression of your breasts. If you have very sensitive breasts, try to avoid scheduling your mammogram the week before your period because that is the time during which breasts are most sensitive.
Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Breast MRI uses magnetic fields to allow doctors to view inside the breast tissue. MRI does not involve radiation and provides higher-resolution images than conventional mammograms. Breast MRI does not replace mammography and breast ultrasound but is a supplemental tool for detecting, staging and determining treatment for breast cancer and other breast abnormalities.
A breast ultrasound helps the radiologist determine if a lump or mass is filled with fluid or is solid tissue. Masses that are clearly filled with fluid are called cysts and are usually not cancer. If the lump looks as though it is solid, a biopsy may be performed. If a breast ultrasound indicates the mass is solid, a biopsy may be scheduled to obtain tissue for a definitive diagnosis.
Ultrasounds do not take the place of mammography. Most early cancers that are visible as microcalcifications in the mammogram, for example, will not be visible with the ultrasound. It is important to follow early detection guidelines and have regularly scheduled examinations.
What to Expect on the Day of Your Ultrasound
An ultrasound involves applying a gel to the skin of your breast. The machine uses a device called a transducer that emits ultrasound waves and receives their echoes as it is moved across the skin of your breast. There is no compression, and most women find the procedure to be painless.
Further Diagnostic Testing
Diagnostic mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs may indicate that a cancer could be present, but your team will want to have more information to know how to treat your cancer. You can find more information on some of the procedures they may use by clicking on the topics below.
- Biopsy - By obtaining a piece of tissue, your doctors can learn about what kind of cell is causing the cancer and may learn whether the cancer has begun to spread.
- Staging - Your doctors may want to do one or more tests to see if your cancer has spread.
Both of these are important facts to know in determining the best approach to treatment.
Houston Methodist provides digital mammography and ultrasound at the following convenient locations: