Difference Between Screening & Diagnostic Mammograms


Most women dread mammograms. An uncomfortable if not painful medical test in which the breasts are analyzed for cancer, mammograms are an important part of a woman’s preventative health care. Mammograms are a vital tool in the fight against breast cancer, as they can reveal early-stage tumors and abnormalities. There are two types of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.

Having a mammogram can potentially save your life.
Having a mammogram can potentially save your life. (Image: Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)


Essentially an X-ray of the breast tissue, a mammogram is a standard medical test for all women over 40. Experts recommend the procedure every one to two years for women with no family history of breast cancer. Women with higher risk factors should have bi-annual mammograms or start receiving mammograms at a younger age.

Nurse with patient in mamogram
Nurse with patient in mamogram (Image: John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Screening Mammogram

A screening mammogram is a standard mammogram. This is the test that most women receive during their annual or bi-annual checkup. In a screening mammogram, the technician will take two X-rays of each breast. The purpose of the test is to identify any tissue changes (as compared with previous mammograms) and look for the presence of tumors and microcalcifications, small deposits of calcium that may indicate breast cancer.

Xray of breast
Xray of breast (Image: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

Diagnostic Mammogram

Diagnostic mammograms are only given to women who show a possible presence of cancer after having a screening mammogram. Diagnostic mammograms check for specific symptoms of breast cancer. Based on research data, approximately 10 percent of all women are called back to take a diagnostic mammogram. Not all of these women will have breast cancer. Sometimes a diagnostic test is used to get a better picture of part of the breast that was not clear in the screening mammogram.

Woman getting a mamogram
Woman getting a mamogram (Image: John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images)


The main difference between the screening mammogram and the diagnostic mammogram is its purpose. A screening test is a basic mammogram and is not intended to provide a diagnosis of cancer. The purpose of a diagnostic mammogram, on the other hand, is to specifically locate and analyze the breasts for potentially cancerous cells. A diagnostic mammogram is intended to diagnose or rule out the presence of cancer. Another difference, according to the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, is that diagnostic mammograms use a specialized X-ray that is more detailed and accurate than the X-ray used for a screening mammogram.

Xray machine for mamograms
Xray machine for mamograms (Image: Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)


Recently, annual and bi-annual mammograms have been called into question. Some experts believe that frequent mammograms are unnecessary for most women and now recommend a screening mammogram only once every five years for most women. This is in part due to the fact that women are sometimes misdiagnosed based on the test. Other doctors believe that mammograms are still the best way to detect cancer early, allowing for quicker and safer treatment. The National Cancer Institute advises women to speak to their physicians about any family history of breast cancer and request a screening mammogram if your family history shows a presence of breast cancer. Women under 40 can have mammograms; however ultrasounds can also be used for younger women with denser breast tissue.

Woman getting mamogram
Woman getting mamogram (Image: Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

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