2014: Breast Cancer: Regular screenings key to early detection

The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health contends early detection of breast cancer improves the chance for cure.

The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health contends early detection of breast cancer improves the chance for cure.

Digital or conventional, high-quality screening mammograms and regular clinical breast exams are still the best ways to detect breast cancer early.

The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health contends early detection of breast cancer improves the chance for cure.

Screening mammograms require less exposures than diagnostic mammograms, and are helpful for women with no signs of breast cancer.

Digital mammography does offer some advantages, though it is not proven to decrease mortality compared to the conventional film method.

First approved in the U.S. in 2000, digital mammography is faster and can be safer, though extra exposures may be required for women with increased breast density.

Digital mammography uses X-ray film to capture the mammographic image, and stores this image in a computer file. Instant results can mean fewer retakes and less radiation exposure.

This takes seconds, does not require developing film, and reduces the radiation dose, often by 50 percent.

A 2005 study of almost 50,000 women published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that digital mammography was particularly helpful in detecting cancer in younger women with dense breasts.

A 2008 study funded by the National Cancer Institute, however, shows digital mammography primarily improved breast cancer detection in women younger than 65. It remains to be proven whether the new technology is superior to film mammography in older women.

Mammographers, radiologists who specialize in mammography, are able to take these digital images and use computers to further enhance them.

Medicare pays for annual screening mammograms for beneficiaries who are 40 or older. Most private insurers will cover the cost of a screening mammogram.

A digital mammogram machine often costs nearly $500,000 while older film machines can cost less than $30,000. Radiology providers in Arizona have been slow to adopt this technology, in part because of the much increased cost and lack of increased reimbursement from most insurance plans.

Some providers use both types of equipment, leaving to chance whether the patient gets the better exam.

Patients who have researched their options and prefer the digital mammogram are encouraged ask for it specifically, and consult their insurance providers to determine whether there will be an additional cost.

Low-income, uninsured women can find out about free or low-cost mammography screening through the Centers for Disease Control. The agency coordinates the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

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