Nearly one in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. In fact, breast cancer is one of the most common cancers to affect American women, second only to skin cancer. Thankfully, the past 20 years have seen a decline in the reported number of breast cancer-related deaths, due in part to improved screening and treatment techniques.

Mammograms are the recommended test to detect early-stage breast cancer. A mammogram uses X-rays to capture an internal image of breast tissue, which can then be screened for potentially cancerous abnormalities. For decades, doctors relied on mammogram images recorded on film. Now, digital mammograms offer a cutting-edge alternative to traditional procedures.

How does digital mammography work?

All mammograms obtain images by sending X-rays through the breast tissue. The images are then examined for irregularities and compared to previous tests to determine if any changes have occurred. As a patient, there may not seem to be much difference at all between digital and film mammography. In both procedures, a radiology technologist will flatten and compress the breasts between two plates before X-rays are used to record an image.

Film mammography was invented in 1969. As the name implies, this method uses X-rays to capture images on film, similar to the way a traditional camera uses film to take pictures. Digital mammography also uses X-rays, but converts them into electrical signals that can be stored and analyzed in a computer, much in the same way that digital cameras record and store images.

Does digital mammography measure up to traditional methods?

While film mammograms are certainly effective, some studies indicate that they may miss 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers, particularly in premenopausal women. Research suggests that digital mammograms are superior to film mammograms for the following groups:

  • Women under age 50
  • Women who have not begun menopause, or who have been menopausal for less than a year
  • Women with dense breast tissue

What are the advantages of digital mammography?

  • Ease of interpretation. Mammograms can prove tricky for radiologists to interpret. Digital mammograms are stored electronically, allowing computers to assist radiologists in their analysis.
  • Image flexibility. While film mammogram images cannot be altered, digital mammograms can be digitally manipulated, allowing contrast and resolution to be changed as needed to provide better visibility and clearer images.
  • Reduced radiation exposure. Digital mammograms take images of smaller areas of breast tissue at a time, reducing patient exposure to radiation during the procedure.
  • Easier to share and store. Conventional mammograms create bulky film images that must be physically stored and transported. Digital mammography allows images to be sent electronically to other doctors for analysis and can easily be retrieved and compared to future screenings.

When do I need a mammogram?

Following established cancer screening guidelines can help detect cancer before symptoms emerge. Early detection of breast cancer improves treatment outcomes and can save lives. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for all women starting at age 40. Women in their 20s and 30s should generally undergo a clinical breast exam every 3 years.  Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will cover women’s preventive services free of charge, including mammograms and well-woman visits.