Breast Imaging FAQ

What types of breast imaging are there?

Mammography (including tomosynthesis or “3D” mammography), ultrasound, MRI and nuclear medicine imaging are used to view the breasts and related areas.

What is mammography?

A mammogram is an x-ray that takes pictures of the breasts using a very small amount of radiation. Digital mammography uses electronics, instead of film, to record and store the breast images, so that pictures may viewed on a computer. Special software can detect abnormal areas on digital mammograms. Mammography using 3-D imaging or tomosynthesis has been shown to improve breast cancer detection and reduce the number of false positive findings.

The mammography unit compresses the breast as images are taken. Breast compression is necessary for accurate images but can be uncomfortable. A technologist helps with positioning and is there to make the study as comfortable as possible while also obtaining the best images.

Screening mammograms may detect breast cancer in women with no symptoms, or diagnose other breast diseases. Approximately 10 percent of screening mammograms need additional imaging with either mammography or ultrasound. Those follow-up images usually turn out to be normal. Diagnostic mammograms are used to evaluate a condition such as a breast lump or discharge.

How does ultrasound work?

Ultrasound, or sonography, uses sound waves to create pictures of the inside of the breast. It is a painless imaging method. Gel is placed on the surface of the breast and an external probe is moved to transmit and collect sound waves. A computer turns the sound waves into images. There is no radiation or x-ray exposure.

What is MRI?

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, creates detailed pictures of the breasts and surrounding areas. Images are made using a unit equipped with a powerful magnet and radio waves. There is no radiation or x-ray exposure however, an injection of contrast is needed for most MR imaging.

 During the MRI study, the table moves through the imaging unit, a large tube while images are taken. High field MRI units with wider openings are available to create greater comfort for claustrophobic, bariatric or larger patients.

What is nuclear medicine imaging?

These scans show molecular or chemical activity within the body, using small amounts of radiotracers, or radioactive material, that are swallowed, injected or inhaled. The material gradually flushes out of the body after imaging is completed. Nuclear medicine imaging modalities include positron emission tomography, or PET, and SPECT, single-photon emission-computed tomography.

Nuclear medicine may be used to evaluate breast cancer and its spread, identify sentinel lymph nodes before surgery and evaluate lymphedema.

What are image-guided breast biopsies?

Sometimes, it is necessary to remove tissue or cells to test for the presence of cancer. This procedure, known as a biopsy, may be performed surgically or using image guidance. Image-guided breast biopsies, which are, less-invasive procedures using only a needle to sample cells, are conducted by radiologists, uses ultrasound, MRI or mammography for guidance.

How should I prepare for a breast imaging study?

Preparation depends on the type of imaging you will receive. You may need to undress to your waist and be given a gown to wear. Remove all jewelry, including piercings. When having a mammogram, do not use deodorant, talcum powder or lotion on the breasts or underarms that day.

Who reads and evaluates the breast images?

A breast imaging radiologist, a physician trained in interpreting breast exams, will analyze the images and report findings to you and your doctor.

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