Screening vs Diagnostic Mammogram: What’s the Difference?

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. Mammograms are powerful tools that can help doctors detect breast cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages.

Many people know how important regular mammograms are—but did you know that there are two types of mammograms? Screening and diagnostic mammograms are both x-rays, but they can show doctors different things.

Dr. Belen M. Herrero-Mujic, a board-certified internist here at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health, explains what patients need to know about the two different types of mammograms.

Who needs a mammogram?

Different medical organizations have different recommendations for when a person should start receiving regular mammograms—but all agree that it should be a decision that you make together with your doctor. In general, when and how often you need a mammogram will depend on your age, your family history, and any risk factors.

Most people have their first mammogram between the ages of 40 and 45. If you have a first-degree relative (a parent or sibling) who has had breast cancer, your doctor may recommend you start getting screenings even earlier.

What is a screening mammogram?

A screening mammogram is a standard x-ray that’s recommended for patients who don’t have any symptoms of breast cancer and don’t have a high genetic risk. When you go in for your regular exam, you’ll likely receive a screening mammogram.

Screening mammograms are very quick. They usually take about 10-15 minutes to complete, and your doctor will call you back with results within a week or two.

If the results of your screening mammogram are abnormal or the images aren’t clear enough, your doctor may call you back in for a diagnostic mammogram.

What is a diagnostic mammogram?

A diagnostic mammogram is similar to a screening mammogram but provides a more detailed picture of your breast tissue. Diagnostic mammograms are often taken from multiple angles to look for any sign of potentially cancerous tissue.

Diagnostic mammograms can be as quick as 10-15 minutes, but they may take longer for patients with very dense breast tissue or implants. Some patients find that the imaging process is uncomfortable because of the way the machine presses on the breast, but this discomfort doesn’t last long.

Unlike screening mammograms, diagnostic mammograms often take place with a radiologist in the room with you to interpret the results right away. If your doctor suspects that you have any cancerous tissue, your next step may be to get a biopsy, MRI, or another test.

If you’ve had breast cancer in the past, you may need to receive regular diagnostic mammograms instead of screening imaging.

How do I know which kind I should get?

If you’re not at a high risk for breast cancer and you’re just going in for your yearly visit, you’ll most likely receive a screening mammogram.

However, you may need a diagnostic mammogram if:

  • Your doctor finds anything that looks concerning on a screening mammogram
  • You have a high genetic risk of developing breast cancer
  • You’re experiencing any concerning symptoms, like feeling a lump in your breast or underarm, unusual nipple discharge, or a change in the shape or size of your breast

Getting called back for a diagnostic mammogram doesn’t automatically mean you have breast cancer—it just means your doctor needs to take a closer look. Sometimes that’s needed for patients with very dense breast tissue or patients with non-cancerous cysts.

What does a mammogram show?

When a doctor reads your mammogram, they’ll be looking for a few different things.

  • Changes from your past screenings. Your doctor will use your previous screenings as a baseline when looking for any changes.
  • Calcifications. These are deposits of calcium that can form in the breast tissue and are a possible marker of breast cancer. Not all calcifications are cancerous or indicate that you’ll later develop cancer, but your doctor will want to do additional tests to determine the cause of these calcifications.
  • Lumps or masses. There are lots of different masses that can form in the breast, many of which are non-cancerous. These include fluid-filled cysts and fibroadenomas (non-cancerous tumors).
  • Breast density. Breast density is a measure of how much fibrous and glandular tissue is in your breast versus how much fatty tissue. Your doctor may have you return for a diagnostic mammogram if your breast tissue is very dense in order to get a clearer picture.

Schedule an Appointment to Learn More

The earlier you detect breast cancer, the better chances you have of surviving and living a long, healthy life. If you’re over the age of 40 or have a genetic history of breast cancer, it’s important to talk with your doctor about when it’s time to get a mammogram.

If you want to learn more or just discuss your breast cancer risks with a doctor, you can schedule an appointment with Dr. Herrero-Mujic at our New Tampa location. Virtual telemedicine appointments are also available.

About Belen M. Herrero-Mujic, MD

Dr. Belen M. Herrero-Mujic is an internal medicine specialist at Florida Medical Clinic Orlando Health. As an internist, Dr. Herrero helps adult patients manage their overall health, from scheduling routine exams to managing chronic illnesses and more.

Dr. Herrero-Mujic is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and is a graduate of the University of South Florida. She’s been serving patients from her North Tampa office since 2001.

Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Every patient is different, so talk with your doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you.


Internal Medicine • Radiology

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