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Mammograms & Other Types of Breast Exams

MSK imaging radiologist Elizabeth Morris

Breast exams are the check-ups, mammograms, and other types of screening methods that you may have to find breast cancer before symptoms develop. Having breast exams on a regular basis can help detect breast cancer at its earliest, most treatable stages.

Memorial Sloan Kettering has developed breast cancer screening guidelines to help guide you to which screening tests you might need, how often you should get them, and when to start. In general, MSK recommends that women at average risk for breast cancer begin having annual mammograms at age 40.

If you have been told that you have dense breasts, talk to your doctor about which screening exam might be right for you. Learn more about screening for women with dense breasts.

Mammogram

Mammography uses low-dose x-rays to examine your breasts. Annual mammograms (also called screening mammograms) have been shown to significantly reduce the number of women age 40 and older who die from breast cancer. Our screening centers use digital mammography to capture x-ray images as well as computer images in which the picture can be moved and viewed from different angles. We also offer digital breast tomosynthesis, which is sometimes called 3-D mammography because it provides a deeper look at the breast tissue.

During a mammogram, you will stand in front of the x-ray machine while the person who takes the x-rays places your breast between two plastic plates. The plates flatten your breast in order to produce a clear picture of the tissue inside.

A screening mammogram usually involves taking two or more x-rays of each breast. The x-ray images can show tumors; they may also show abnormalities that sometimes indicate the presence of breast cancer.

Mammograms can also be used to diagnose breast cancer when you already have signs of the disease. Learn more about breast cancer diagnosis.

Breast Ultrasound

Breast ultrasound (or ultrasonography) uses sound waves to create images of your breast tissue.

During a breast ultrasound, a probe is placed on the skin of your breast. The probe sends high-frequency sound waves into your breast, which bounce off the tissue and return to the probe as echo waves. The echo waves are then converted to the images you see on the screen of the ultrasound machine.

Breast ultrasound is often used to assess abnormalities that are found during mammography or a clinical breast exam. The accuracy of the technique depends greatly on the skill level and training of the technician performing it. All technicians at Memorial Sloan Kettering are experts in ultrasound. Currently, we perform this examination if your doctor requests additional screening.

Breast Tomosynthesis (3-D Mammography)

Breast tomosynthesis, also called 3-D mammography, is a new technology. It takes images of the breast from many different angles and creates a three-dimensional picture of the tissue. Like breast ultrasound, breast tomosynthesis may be particularly useful for women with dense breasts.

Contrast-Enhanced Digital Mammography (CEDM)

Contrast-enhanced digital mammography, or CEDM, combines digital mammogram with the injection of a special dye called a contrast agent. Because cancers absorb more of the contrast agent than the surrounding healthy tissue, it is easier for doctors to detect cancers on the mammogram.
CEDM is still a relatively new technology, and MSK’s breast cancer experts are currently studying which patients it should routinely be used for. For example, it may have a role in screening for breast cancer in women at above-average risk or women who have dense breasts.
 

Breast MRI

Breast MRI, when used to screen for breast cancer, involves the use of radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer that creates detailed pictures of your breast.

During an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test, fluids are injected to improve the visibility of the inside of the breast.

Studies show that having regular mammography plus breast MRI may offer some advantages over other screening methods for women who are at high risk for the disease. However, it is not typically recommended for women at average risk of breast cancer.

Learn more about breast cancer risk factors.

Clinical Breast Exam

A clinical breast exam is a physical exam of the breast performed by a trained healthcare professional. It includes an examination of both breasts, your underarms, and your collarbone area to check for any signs of breast cancer.

Breast Self-Exam

A breast self-exam, which you may also call a self breast exam, is an at-home breast exam you give yourself. You’ll want to check your breasts for anything that feels unusual. You should look for breast lumps, changes in size or shape, leaking of fluid from the nipples, or irregular thickening of tissue.

While MSK’s experts recommend breast self-exams for women, they are not a substitute for the routine breast cancer screenings performed by trained healthcare professionals.

Learn how to perform a self breast exam.

Breast Exams at Memorial Sloan Kettering

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, breast cancer screening exams are performed by a team of experts, including radiologists whose sole focus is interpreting the results of breast cancer imaging tests. We offer breast cancer screening services, including mammography, at our Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center in Manhattan.

We also offer specialized screening services for women at increased risk of breast cancer through our RISE program, available in Manhattan and in New Jersey. Learn more about our screening program for women at increased risk of breast cancer.

In addition, the Breast Examination Center of Harlem provides free, high-quality care to women from the community.

Our Breast Cancer Screening Research

Our team of breast radiologists is constantly looking for new ways to improve breast cancer screening exams. We are particularly focused on enhancing the imaging options available to women with dense breasts.