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Screening vs. Diagnostic Mammogram

Mammograms serve as an essential tool in women's healthcare, particularly in the early detection of breast cancer. It’s important to get a routine mammogram because it’s not always possible to see signs of potential breast cancer through physical examination alone.

Two broad types of mammograms are screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. Each plays a different role in the breast cancer prevention and detection process. In this article, we’ll explain the differences between screening and diagnostic mammograms to help determine which one you should schedule. Then, we’ll dive into how to prepare for your mammogram appointment.

What is a screening mammogram?

A screening mammogram is a routine exam performed on asymptomatic patients to look for signs of breast cancer that a physical examination may not detect1. This type of mammogram is akin to a preventive screening for breast cancer. Getting one once per year is recommended, depending on your age, and it’s usually performed separately from your annual physical exam.

During a screening mammogram, your health provider will take X-rays of your breasts from several angles. These images are then examined for any irregularities that could indicate breast cancer.

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What is a diagnostic mammogram?

A diagnostic mammogram is an imaging procedure used to examine breast tissue closely, usually after a screening mammogram detects unusual results.1 These may also be ordered if the patient is experiencing symptoms such as pain, discharge, or lumps.

Diagnostic mammograms are more in-depth, requiring additional and more targeted imaging to help radiologists examine the area more closely and make a more accurate diagnosis.

Differences between screening and diagnostic mammograms

Both procedures are crucial in detecting breast cancer. However, they differ in several ways, suiting them for different roles in breast cancer detection:2

  • Purpose: Screening mammograms attempt to detect breast cancer early, before the patient experiences symptoms. Diagnostic mammograms aim to investigate potential signs of cancer that physical examination or screening mammograms have detected.
  • Procedure length: Screening mammograms generally take around 30 minutes.2 Diagnostic mammograms can take longer since radiologists may need more images, and those images may need to be more precise.
  • Number of images: A screening mammogram may only need images from a few angles, while diagnostic mammograms may involve more images.1 The number can vary based on the patient’s situation and symptoms.
  • Frequency: Screening mammograms should be performed once per year. Diagnostic mammograms are only performed when needed, such as after detecting unusual results or experiencing symptoms.2

Which mammogram is right for me?

If you’re healthy and not experiencing symptoms of breast cancer, a screening mammogram once yearly is generally a good idea.3 This is especially important if you have a family history of breast cancer. Continue to physically examine your breasts for any signs once a month, as well. On the other hand, a diagnostic mammogram may be appropriate if you experience the following:

  • Breast pain
  • A lump
  • Discharge

Furthermore, you may want to get a diagnostic mammogram if your screening mammogram picks up potential signs of cancer.

How to prepare for a mammogram

Here are a few tips to make your mammogram go smoothly and to get the most accurate results:4

  • Check your insurance: Review your health insurance policy to see what it covers in terms of mammograms.
  • Go to a facility specializing in mammograms: Mammogram specialists may have more experience and better technology, which can lead to more accurate results.
  • Schedule the mammogram at the right time: Try to schedule your mammogram when your breasts are less likely to experience sensitivity. The best time is often the week after your period.
  • Provide previous mammogram records: If you’re going to a new facility, get mammogram records from any facilities you attended in the past for mammograms. Providing the facility with more information and context helps them better understand your situation when analyzing the images.
  • Don’t wear deodorant: Deodorant, antiperspirant, and similar items may show up as white spots in X-ray imaging. This may lead to a false alarm or make it more difficult for the radiologists to evaluate the images. Consider taking deodorant with you to apply afterwards.

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Early detection is key to detecting and addressing breast cancer. Screening and diagnostic mammograms each play crucial roles in this process. A screening mammogram can be an excellent preventive measure, helping to catch any issues undetected by physical examination. If the screening mammogram results warrant a more thorough examination, or if you’re experiencing potential symptoms, a diagnostic mammogram can help medical professionals take a closer look.

Health insurance may not cover the full cost of preventive screening. Furthermore, health insurance may not cover the whole bill if cancer is detected. Cancer insurance from Aflac can help fill in these gaps, giving you added peace of mind knowing that you can access the screenings and treatments you need, regardless of your situation. Speak with an agent today about your cancer insurance options.

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