For the last 30 years mammography has been the gold standard in detecting and diagnosing breast cancer. For millions of women, the X-ray screening test has saved lives by finding breast abnormalities, sometimes before the women themselves knew any problem existed.
While mammography has been an important tool in the fight against cancer, it’s not perfect. For example, it can give false positive results — abnormal areas inside the breast, but where no cancer is present; or false negative results — where the breast tissue may look normal but cancer is actually present, leading to delays in treatment.
False-negative results occur more often among younger women because younger women are more likely to have dense breasts, however, older women taking menopausal hormone therapy may also experience a false negative result.
Mammograms also expose women to low doses of ionizing radiation. While accepted as safe, they still carry some risk. X-ray exposure during pregnancy can damage an unborn child, so always tell your X-ray technician if you’re pregnant or possibly pregnant.
Another risk, though low, is a person undergoing repeated X-ray exposure can potentially develop cancer. For most women though, the benefits of mammography outweigh the risk, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the Institutes of Health.
In the last 15 years, new technology has vastly improved the mammogram from our mothers' and grandmothers' era. In most areas of the country, digital images have replaced the old film type of X-ray images.
The digital format provides higher quality images that can be stored and electronically shared by doctors, making long-distance consultations easier and result wait times shorter. Digital images often mean patients are exposed to less radiation since fewer images are needed.
While the NCI strongly encourages women age 40 and older to have a mammogram every one or two years, it is also supporting the development of several new technologies to detect breast tumors. This research ranges from methods being developed in research labs to those that are being studied in clinical trials.