Diagnostic mammography is a series of X-rays used to confirm and examine the presence of abnormal formations in the breasts. More detailed than a routine scanned mammography, diagnostic mammography is usually done only if an abnormality is detected by a routine examination. Although having diagnostic mammography may be somewhat frightening for women, it is important to remember that the majority of breast abnormalities are benign formations that do not indicate cancer or other health conditions.
In a typical screened mammography, two x-rays are taken of each breast. This allows doctors to get a general view of the internal structure of the breast and see if any formations are easily visible. Many women undergo screening once a year, as part of general health examinations. Diagnostic mammography can be seen as a second step in an exam process, used if a possible abnormality is detected during the regular examination. In this test, additional x-rays are taken, giving more specific results and a closer look at potential problem areas.
Diagnostic mammography can help doctors identify different types of masses or formations in the breasts. Typically, doctors are looking for signs of either calcification or masses. Calcification is an unusual cluster of calcium deposits in the breast, which may be an indication of cancer in some cases. Masses are lumps in the breast that may even be visible or touchable, and may also indicate cancer. Even if a mass or calcification is discovered, it is important not to panic; many are benign in nature and do not guarantee breast cancer.
Masses will often require a biopsy to determine if the mass is a cyst. Cysts are generally benign fluid-filled sacs that sometimes form in the breast and can resemble cancerous masses. Certain signs in diagnostic mammography can indicate whether a lump is a cyst or mass, but additional testing is nearly always necessary to achieve an accurate diagnosis. In addition to needle biopsies, ultrasounds are sometimes employed to distinguish a solid mass from a cyst.
Although diagnostic mammography is often necessary for making a clear diagnosis of abnormalities, it is generally not required as part of a regular breast exam. Some doctors recommend that women with a family history of cancer, previous cancer themselves, or unusual hormonal patterns undergo this procedure more often. For most women, diagnostic mammography is only suggested if symptoms such as breast pain or discharge, lumps, or extreme change in breast shape or size occur.