Three-dimensional mammograms have been available in the U.S. since 2011 (originally used in conjunction with a conventional two-dimensional scan), but you may not have gotten one yet, as many insurance companies are just beginning to cover them. I had one, but wouldn’t have known about it if my doctor hadn’t asked if I wanted it. I immediately phoned my health care provider and, sure enough, they’d recently started covering them in full.
While the jury is still out on whether they’re absolutely a better test than the traditional 2D scan, a study done by 13 hospitals consisting of 455,000 mammogram screens showed a 40 percent increase in breast cancer detection rates when using 3D mammography—particularly for invasive cancers.
Though the process looks and feels the same to the patient (yes, your breast still needs to get squished like a sandwich), the 3D digital x-ray machine takes pictures from many angles (not just the two used in the older scanner) and is able to look at the breast in thin layers via computer software that reconstructs an image of the breast.
Any downsides? That greater level of sensitivity can find abnormal growths in the milk ducts that may or may not result in cancer. Since doctors can’t tell if these ductal carcinomas are cancer-forming or not, patients typically get treatment regardless. As for radiation exposure, since the 3D scans are now performed independently (not in conjunction with a 2D scan), it’s about the same level, or lower, than what you’d get from the traditional 2D mammography, according to the National Cancer Institute.
More information should be available after a large-scale randomized breast screening trial this year which will compare 2D and 3D mammograms; specifically, the number of advanced cancers found in women screened for four years with each method. Until then, most experts say that if your insurance covers a 3D mammogram, there are no real downsides—and possibly a major benefit—to getting one.
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