4 Common Breast Cancer Screenings and How They Work

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Photo: Getty Images

Mammography is the best tool for detecting breast cancer early. But with all the different tests out there, it can be baffling to figure out what option works best for you. If you’re not sure what kind you need, consult our cheat sheet.

Digital mammography

Digital mammography uses X-rays to take a picture of your breasts, just like the older film mammography, but it records and stores the images on a computer instead of on film. “At least 94 percent of all units in use these days are digital,” Dr. Lee says. Advantages over film: lower radiation dose and better imaging of dense breasts.

RELATED: Do You Need That Mammogram?

Tomosynthesis, or 3-D mammography

Tomosynthesis, or 3-D mammography, takes a number of low-dose X-rays as it moves over the breast and combines the images into a three-dimensional picture. It involves slightly more radiation than standard digital but may allow doctors to see the tissue more clearly, which could lower the risk of false positives and reveal more cancers.

RELATED: 25 Breast Cancer Myths, Busted

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, relies on a magnetic field and pulses of radio-wave energy to create pictures of the breast. It’s often used along with mammography for screening women who carry a BRCA gene mutation and other women at very high risk of breast cancer, or it can be tapped to investigate a suspicious lump found by a mammogram.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Cut Your Breast Cancer Risk

Ultrasound

Ultrasound employs a microphone-like transducer that emits sound waves to make an image on a computer screen. It’s less expensive than MRI and is typically used to target a specific area of concern (because it can distinguish between fluid-filled cysts and solid masses) or as a supplement to mammograms for women with dense breasts.

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