Three woman sitting outside around a table discussing 3D mammograms


Breasts are 3-dimensional, and now so is your mammogram

  • The average woman has a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer during her lifetime. It's also the second main cause of cancer death in women, right behind lung cancer.
  • Fortunately, more women are surviving breast cancer. This is mostly due to improved breast cancer prevention and screening, as well as advances in breast cancer treatment.

Finding breast cancer early, before it has a chance to spread, is the best defense against this disease. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for those whose breast cancer is found early is greater than 90 percent.

The best tool we have to detect breast cancer early is mammography. Mammography can find breast cancer two to three years before it can be felt. The American Society of Radiology reports that since 1990, mammography has helped reduce breast cancer mortality in the United States by nearly 40 percent.

But we know mammography is not perfect. It can miss some cancers, and many women experience what are called false positives, a suspicious reading that requires additional testing and sometimes biopsies on what turns out to be noncancerous tissue. Continued advances in technology are reducing these difficulties, and mammography has evolved to become safer, more reliable and now, 3-dimensional.

Standard mammography

A mammographic exam involves compressing your breasts between two panels while an X-ray is taken. The compression is necessary to get a clear image of the breast tissue.

The standard screening method is 2-D mammography. During this examination, four images (two vertical and two horizontal) are taken of each breast. Radiologists read these images and look for anomalies or changes in the breast tissue that may require additional testing.

3-D images

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved 3-D mammography, or tomosynthesis, for breast cancer screening. Similar to 2-D, each breast is compressed between two panels. The difference with 3-D mammography, is that the camera moves in an arc over the breast taking a series of images. Each image is like a thin slice of the breast tissue, which helps the radiologist see through tissue better, especially dense tissue. Think of it like a book, with each image being a single page, allowing the radiologist to read each page and get a closer, clearer look.

Benefits of 3-D mammography are:

  • higher rate of cancer detection; an estimated 27 to 50 percent improvement
  • higher rate of detection of early cancers
  • more sensitivity to detect invasive cancers
  • reduced need for callbacks for additional images
  • better images for women with dense breast tissue

Because of these benefits, some health care providers recommend 3-D mammograms for women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer, as well as for women who have dense breast tissue.

The cost of a 3-D mammogram is higher than 2-D. Many but not all insurance companies will cover 3-D mammograms, so you should check with your insurance company regarding coverage.


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