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3D Mammography improves breast cancer detection, reduces need for additional testing

Innovative 3D mammograms provide physicians and patients with highly accurate results, helping experts detect harder-to-find cancers and reducing the number of “false positive” tests.
3D mammograms reduce “false positive” results and are better at detecting hard-to-find cancers. We asked University of Minnesota Health Radiologist Tim Emory, MD, to tell us more about the innovative procedure.

An advancement in mammogram technology makes it easier for doctors to find breast cancer early—and helps cut down on the number of “false positives” on screening results.

3D mammography, also known as breast tomosynthesis, is the latest technical development in breast cancer screening. The FDA-approved technique uses digital imaging to take x-ray images of the breast from multiple angles, creating a collection of images—each capturing a 1 mm cross-section of the breast. Doctors are able to view these images layer by layer, which improves their ability to spot hard-to-find tumors. Traditional mammography produces just two images of the breast: a side view and a top-to-bottom view.

“3D mammography is more accurate for finding cancer,” said University of Minnesota Health Radiologist Tim Emory, MD. “It can identify cancer earlier and at the same time can reduce the amount of additional testing needed.”

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health mammography services.

Additional testing may be required when doctors discovery an abnormality on mammogram screening images. Providers may ask the patient to return for additional imaging to see if the abnormality is real and potentially cancerous—or whether it is simply an irregularity in the imaging. Known as false positives, these imaging irregularities can occur due to a variety of factors, including a slight difference in breast positioning for the mammogram from one year to the next.

As part of additional testing, patients may have to undergo additional mammographic view or even a breast ultrasound, which increases time and cost for the person involved. For these reasons, breast cancer experts recommend 3D mammography when it is feasible, Emory said.

Read more about University of Minnesota Health breast cancer care.

Patients familiar with traditional mammography exams will notice little difference between those and the 3D mammography procedure, Emory said. Preparation for a 3D mammogram is similar to the traditional 2D procedure, and the 3D procedure takes roughly 10-20 minutes to complete.

“The patient experience for the 3D mammogram is essentially the same as for a regular mammogram,” Emory  said. “One difference: the X-ray imaging arm obtains images with a sweeping motion instead of staying motionless during the exposure.”

“3D mammograms involve slightly more radiation exposure than 2D imaging methods, but the overall exposure is still minimal and well within acceptable health standards,” Emory added.

If your insurance provider does not cover 3D mammography, Emory strongly recommends 2D mammography as an alternative. “A yearly 2D or 3D mammogram significantly reduces the risk of death from breast cancer,” he said, citing recommendations issued by the American Cancer Society.