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Cancer care: Breast cancer

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Breast cancer prevention and detection

Prevention and detection

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancer.

  • Limiting the use of alcohol, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy body weight can help prevent breast cancer.
  • Mammograms, clinical breast exams (done during your annual physical) and periodic breast self-exams can help detect breast cancer early, when it is most curable.

Facing a breast cancer diagnosis is difficult. That is why we encourage women to ask many questions—and even get second opinions—about their breast care.

Breast cancer signs: What breast cancer symptoms should I watch for?
Breast cancer checks: How often should I get screened for breast cancer symptoms?
Breast cancer screening: What if my test results are abnormal?

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Mammograms, Clinical Breast Exams and Self-exams, rad-ahc-14066 (3/08); American Cancer Society; "Types of Breast Biopsies" by Tammy Fox, MD, and Diane Stoller, MD, Piper Breast Center Communiqué, winter 2003; National Cancer Institute
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute; Carol Bergen, RN, manager, Piper Breast Center; Deborah Day, MD, medical director, Piper Breast Center
First Published: 08/25/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/25/2009

Mammograms: Important breast cancer checks

Starting at age 40, most women should have a mammogram every year. This will help catch breast cancer early on, when it's most curable.

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray picture of your breast. The exam involves compressing your breasts between two panels for a few seconds so the X-ray can get a clear image of your breast tissue. You will feel pressure.

Your mammogram images will be taken in one of two ways:

  • analog (on film): Images are created on film. The film is developed and the radiologist (doctor of X-ray) studies the film on a special light box.
  • digital: Images are captured and sent to a computer. The radiologist studies the images on a high-resolution computer screen.

Both ways are safe, accurate and provide reliable results.

Although mammograms are proven to find breast cancer in early stages, about 10% of cancers do not show up on mammograms.

Digital mammography: Is it better than regular mammograms?

A woman getting a mammogram probably will not notice a difference between digital mammography and analog (on film) breast cancer screening.

The main difference between a digital and film mammogram is in how images are taken and displayed. Digital pictures do not go to film that must be developed before they can be seen. Instead, they're taken by a computer and electronically sent to a screen, where a radiologist can interpret (read) them.

Digital mammograms offer radiologists the option to magnify, brighten or darken images so that they can better see possible tumors and verify whether they could be breast cancer. However, if you have a film mammogram, you can feel confident that the radiologist will have clear, complete images to read.

Digital mammography has been available since 1996. Early studies suggest that digital mammograms may be more effective in detecting breast cancer in women younger than age 50, women who have not gone through menopause, and women who have dense (thick) breast tissue.

Digital mammography locations

Although the number of digital mammography units at clinics and hospitals is growing throughout the United States, film mammograms are more widely available.

These Allina locations offer digital mammography.


Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Mammograms, Clinical Breast Exams and Self-exams, rad-ahc-14066 (3/08); American Cancer Society; "Digital Mammography – Is it better?" by Deborah L. Day, MD, Piper Breast Center Communiqué, winter/spring 2006; American College of Radiology
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute; Carol Bergen, RN, manager, Piper Breast Center; Deborah Day, MD, medical director, Piper Breast Center
First Published: 08/25/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/25/2009

Does it hurt? Leann explains mammograms

a mammography technician places her hand on the back of a woman as she eases up to a mammography machine

Mary Rinehart, radiology technician and mammography lead at Allina Health Richfield Clinic, helps to position a woman who is having a mammogram.

Need a mammogram?

Check with your insurance provider to make sure the mammogram will be covered.

Find the mammogram location that works best for you.

They might enter the clinic in fear. But after a mammogram by Leann McMullen, women often say, "Oh, that wasn't so bad."

"Many patients come in fearful because they've heard horror stories about mammograms," says McMullen. "But it shouldn't be a horrible experience. It is very important to listen to patients and help them feel at ease."

That's what the radiology coordinator and her colleagues try to do as they perform an average of 380 mammograms a month at Allina Health Coon Rapids Clinic.

Catching breast cancer early

A mammogram is an X-ray examination of the breast in a woman with no breast complaints. It's meant to find cancer when it is too small to be felt by the woman or her doctor.

Early detection improves one's ability to overcome breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in women (after lung cancer).

A screening mammogram usually involves four views: a front and a side of each breast. For each view, the breast is squeezed between two plates to spread the tissue apart and allow a low dose of radiation.

"There is a moment of discomfort. It is tight, but then it's done. The total amount of compression time is 40 to 50 seconds for all four views," says McMullen, who personally receives a mammogram each year.

What should I do before my mammogram?
What should I expect after my mammogram?

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Mammograms, Clinical Breast Exams and Self-exams, rad-ahc-14066 (3/08); American Cancer Society; Leann McMullen, radiology coordinator, Allina Health Coon Rapids Clinic
Reviewed by: Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute; Carol Bergen, RN, manager, Piper Breast Center; Deborah Day, MD, medical director, Piper Breast Center
First Published: 10/06/2003
Last Reviewed: 08/25/2009

Three-dimensional (3-D) mammography

What is it?

Three-dimensional (3-D) mammography (also known as breast tomosynthesis) creates 3-D images of your breast using low-dose digital X-rays.

How is a 2-D mammogram different than a 3-D mammogram?

A 2-D (two-dimensional) mammogram is a standard mammogram. It creates flat images of your breast.

Sometimes during a 2-D mammogram, the breast tissue can overlap while it is compressed. This can make the tissue look abnormal. If you have an abnormal mammogram, you will need to have more testing done.

2-D mammograms are safe, accurate and provide reliable results.

3-D mammograms eliminate breast tissue overlap. During the exam, the camera moves in an arc over your breast taking multiple 3-D images. This allows the radiologist to see the breast tissue in sharper images.

How is 3-D mammography done?

  • You will be asked to remove your clothes from the waist up. You will be given a hospital gown or wrap to wear.
  • You will stand or sit (if you are in a wheelchair) in front of the X-ray machine.
  • The technologist will put one of your breasts on the platform. Your breast will be compressed between two panels for about 10 seconds. You will feel pressure.
  • The camera will move in an arc over your breast taking multiple images.
  • After the exam is completed, the technologist will review the images. He or she may have to do the X-rays again if they do not give a clear image of your breast tissue.

If you choose to have a 3-D mammogram, it is done at the same time as your 2-D mammogram.

What are the benefits?

3-D mammography:

  • has a higher rate of finding cancer
  • decreases your chance of having to go back for more tests, which means fewer:
    • "false-positive" results (This means that there is an abnormal area but it isn't cancer.)
    • invasive testing procedures, such as a biopsy or surgery
  • can provide more detailed images of the breast if you have:
    • dense breast tissue
    • breast implants

3-D mammography is an optional exam that anyone can have with a 2-D mammogram. It doesn’t replace or take the place of a 2-D mammogram.

What are the risks?

You will have some radiation exposure from the X-ray during the exam. The level of radiation exposure is twice the amount of a 2-D mammogram, but still safely below the American College of Radiology guidelines.

3-D mammography is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Insurance coverage

It is important to understand your health care benefits before your exam. Most insurance providers do not cover the cost of 3-D mammography. Please call your insurance provider to find out exactly what is and isn’t covered under your plan, and how much you have to pay yourself.


Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Three-dimensional (3-D) Mammography
Reviewed by: Allina Health's Patient Education Department experts
First Published: 06/27/2014
Last Reviewed: 06/27/2014