What is 3D Mammography?

What is 3D Mammography?

Women have choices when it comes to breast cancer screenings. Standard mammograms every one or two years are the recommended best practice for early detection. They can detect breast cancer up to three years before it can be felt.

Since their introduction, standard mammograms – also called screening mammograms – have helped save countless lives. By using X-rays, they create two-dimensional images of the breast to spot suspicious tissue that may be cancerous.

Still, over the past decade, there have been advances in mammogram technology. Research shows 3D mammography (breast tomosynthesis) can detect breast cancer 28% more accurately than standard mammograms.

Here’s a deeper dive on the potential benefits and risks of a 3D mammogram.

How do 3D Mammograms Differ From Standard Ones?

Standard 2D mammograms take two pictures of the breast. Side-to-side and top-to-bottom images are made. To capture them, the breast is pulled away from the body, compressed and held between two glass plates. This allows the whole breast to be seen. One its drawbacks is breast tissue can overlap during compression. Healthy tissue may appear suspicious and cancerous tissue can be masked. For this reason, 2D mammograms can sometimes produce inaccurate findings.

In contrast, 3D mammograms use CT (computed tomography) scans. The scans take detailed X-ray images from many angles. Combined together, the X-rays create a three-dimensional picture of each breast. Tissue doesn’t overlap. As a result, 3D mammograms lower the number of false alarms. This is especially important for women who have dense breast tissue. Fewer false alarms reduce unnecessary re-testing – along with stress and worry.

What Are the Risks and Limitations of 3D Mammograms?

Cat-scan technology exposes patients to more radiation than an X-rays. Women who get a 3D mammogram may also get a traditional 2D mammogram, exposing them to higher amounts of radiation. While radiation exposure can cause cancer, new technology helps reduce the amount of radiation exposure that comes with a mammogram. Still, the overall benefit of 2D and 3D breast cancer screening outweigh any potential risks linked to radiation exposure.

While 3D mammograms show some promise in better health outcomes, there isn’t enough research to advocate them over 2D mammograms. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recognizes both 2D and 3D mammography as equally acceptable screening methods.

Are 3D Mammograms Covered?

3D mammograms may be covered by your health plan. You should call the number on the back of your member ID card for more information before you schedule one.

How Often Should I Get a Mammogram?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force leaving site icon recommends that women between the ages of 50 and 74 get a mammogram every two years. Women between the ages of 40 and 49 should talk to their doctor about when they should start getting mammograms.

If you have a higher risk for breast cancer, talk to your doctor about screening, no matter how old you are. Breast cancer risk factors include:

  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2
  • Radiation treatments to the breast or chest area

Check with your doctor if you have questions about mammograms or other breast cancer screenings.

Learn more about mammogram screenings leaving site icon in this video.

Sources: Mammogramsleaving site icon National Cancer Institute, 2021; Diagnostic Mammogram, leaving site icon National Breast Cancer Foundation, 2022; Digital Tomosynthesisleaving site icon Breastcancer.org, 2022; 3D Mammograms, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2022; Breast Cancer: Screening leaving site icon U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 2016

Originally published 11/16/2015; Revised 2019, 2022