Mammography: Putting the squeeze on cancer

 In Health

Special to the Banner-Herald

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It’s time for some straight talk: Mammography isn’t comfortable, but it’s a lot better than dying from treatable breast cancer.

“In order to get the clearest images possible, we have to compress the breast,” explains Jeff Brown, St. Mary’s director of Radiology and Cardiology Services. “When you’re looking for the first signs of breast cancer, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Compression helps our radiologists spot the lesions that might be cancerous.”

Mammography works by sending low-doses of x-rays through the breast. Hard tissue, like calcifications and tumors, blocks x-rays and so shows up as white on the black x-ray image. But if breast tissue is not sufficiently compressed or is very dense, a lot of other, perfectly normal tissue also shows up on the image. That can make it harder for radiologists to see the often-subtle signs of cancer.

“That’s why we use compression,” Brown says. “If you’ve got cancer, we need to see it.”

Getting better all the time

Mammography has come a long way in recent years. New systems are better at detecting early cancers than older technologies. For example, the Hologic Genius 3D mammography system at all four of St. Mary’s imaging centers has been found to be 53 percent better than 2D systems at detecting cancers. Those same studies show that the Hologic Genius reduces the number of false positives by 37 percent and unnecessary biopsies by 11 percent.

“When our radiologists see something suspicious on a screening mammogram, we have to ask the patient to come back for more testing to find out if what we’re seeing is actually cancer,” says Brown. “No screening exam will ever be 100 percent perfect. But because our 3D system improves detection of actual cancers while reducing the number of unneeded call-backs, we can make life better for a lot of patients.”

3D mammography is better than 2D mammography because it produces images in “slices” just a 1 millimeter thick. 2D mammography shows all the tissue in the breast at once.

“Imagine you’ve got hundreds of sheets of tissue paper and you’re trying to find one little spot of ink somewhere inside them. If you can flip through the pages one at a time, you’ve got a much better chance of finding that spot,” Brown says. “That’s what 3D mammography lets our radiologists do. That’s why it’s so powerful.”

According to the American Cancer Society, “regular mammograms can help find breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is most successful.

A mammogram can find breast changes that could be cancer years before physical symptoms develop.

Results from many decades of research clearly show that women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer found early, are less likely to need aggressive treatment like surgery to remove the breast and chemotherapy, and are more likely to be cured.”


So how do you go about getting a mammogram, and what should you expect?

Step 1: talk to your doctor. Find out at what age you should start getting screened and how often. Mention any family history of breast cancer, if you have previously had cancer, or if you have been found to have a genetic mutation that puts you at higher risk for breast cancer.

Step 2: schedule your mammogram. Your doctor can schedule your test for you or you can schedule it yourself by calling St. Mary’s at (706) 389-2700. You can also schedule your appointment online at You can choose the day, time and location most convenient for you. 3D mammography is available at St. Mary’s Hospital on Baxter Street in Athens, St. Mary’s Outpatient Imaging Center on Daniells Bridge Road in Oconee County, St. Mary’s Sacred Heart Hospital in Lavonia and St. Mary’s Good Samaritan Hospital in Greensboro. Saturday appointments are available at St. Mary’s Hospital and at the Daniells Bridge Road location.

Step 3: take a few simple steps to prepare for your test.

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