Understanding mammograms and what to expect when you get one

Cancer teams at Sanford include radiologists who will decode mammography terms

Understanding mammograms and what to expect when you get one

Catching breast cancer early can save someone’s life.

Each year, breast cancer accounts for over 42,000 deaths for women and 500 deaths for men in the United States alone, according to the American Cancer Society. The greatest way to catch breast cancer early is through mammograms.

Radiologists can help picture patient needs

Radiologists are the professionals who read mammograms and know exactly what to look for.

Sanford Health breast radiologist Jamie Williams, M.D., says three-dimensional (3D) mammography helps radiologists clearly identify breast cancer, and how to respond afterwards.

“It really gives us a clearer picture of the breasts,” she explained. “When caught early, breast cancer is treatable.”

Through a mobile mammography truck, Sanford Health is uniquely positioned to offer 3D mammograms to all the communities they serve.

“It’s really a great thing,” she said, “particularly for women who aren’t living in Sioux Falls, or larger cities.

“I always emphasize to patients that the truck has the exact same equipment that we have here. The quality of images are just as good on the truck as if you were to come to Sioux Falls. It’s a really great thing for patients to be able to get high quality imaging.”

Screening vs diagnostic mammograms

It’s first important to understand the types of mammograms Sanford Health offers.

Sanford Health recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40. These screenings are important for catching breast cancer early, when it’s most treatable.

However, depending on risk factors, some patients may need mammograms earlier than 40. Talk to your doctor to learn when you should start screenings based on your personal risk.

Dr. Williams said a screening mammogram is a quick exam, and only takes about five to 10 minutes.

“The standard images are taken and then a patient walks out, and they’ll get their report later,” she explained.

There is also a diagnostic mammogram, which Dr. Williams said is an exam tailored to each patient.

“They’ll come and get specific images based on either a symptom the patient is having, or if they were called back from a screening mammogram,” she said.

“For diagnostic exams, patients will get their results the same day as your images are taken, and usually talk to the radiologist and ask questions.”

Understanding mammogram results

Sometimes it feels like health care terminology is in a foreign language. There is a lot to process and understand, and if someone hasn’t had that specific type of training before, it can be daunting.

Dr. Williams said she and other radiologists at Sanford Health break down the results with patients in a way that they can fully understand.

“For screening mammograms, those results come out and the important thing is either that it’s normal, or there’s a callback, meaning that we see something that you need to come back for.

“For a diagnostic exam, we really try to avoid medical jargon, or really clearly define the medical terms that we’re using so that our patients have a full understanding of what we’re seeing, and their breast health, before they leave.”

Trusting in your care team

Dr. Williams stressed the importance for patients to know that their fellowship-trained breast radiologists are part of a team.

Every provider is on a patient’s side, and with them every step of the way.

“We have world-class mammography technologists here that do a great job working with our patients,” she said. “It’s an entire team that really works well together to help patients through this journey.”

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Posted In Cancer, Cancer Screenings, Healthy Living, Imaging