Digital mammograms can cost 1.5 to 4 times the cost of film mammograms, making them out of financial reach for many women. Additionally, according to the National Cancer Institute 92% of breast imaging centers do not have digital mammography machines, so your current practitioner may not have the technology yet. Given these factors, it's important to know whether you're a woman for whom digital mammograms are worth the extra cost and effort.
Film mammography has been used for some 35 years and is still very good at detecting breast abnormalities. However, digital mammography has some additional benefits that film mammography cannot provide.
A digital image can be adjusted for a clearer view of the breasts, whereas if a film mammogram is under- or overpenetrated, the radiologist will not know until the film is developed, which is usually after the patient has left the office. Digital mammograms are instantly available. If the doctor needs additional views, the patient can be called back for more imaging, which can reduce the financial and emotional cost of having to return to the office for additional views.
Portability is a great benefit of digital imaging as well, allowing easier storage and trasmission of images and reducing the chance that an image will be lost.
Digital mammograms also uses one quarter less radiation than film mammograms; however, the National Cancer Institute states that the radiation required for film mammograms is not of a dangerous level.
From a woman's point of view, the experience of getting a digital mammogram is exactly like that of a film mammogram. Both use compression of the breasts to record the image. Women with very large breasts may require additional views, as digital mammograms record a smaller area than traditional mammograms do. Even when additional views are needed, the National Cancer Institute states that the additional radiation is not enough to be of concern.
In 2001 The American College of Radiology Imaging Network (ACRIN) conducted a study titled the Digital Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial (DMIST). What this important study found was that for the following three categories of women, it is significantly better to get digital mammograms than film mammograms:
Women under age 50.
Women over age 50 with very dense breasts.
Women with dense breasts.
According to the study, women who fit ALL of the following categories will not benefit from getting digital mammograms:
Women over age 50.
Women who do not have dense breasts.
Women who are no longer menstruating.
A more recent study led by a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supported the findings of the DMIST.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 40% of women have dense breasts. With only 8% of breast imaging centers having digital mammography machines, the demand for this new technology far outweighs the supply. If you fall into the category that would benefit from digital mammograms, it's a good idea to try to find a center that offers it. Additionally, discuss with your doctor whether ultrasound and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) would be beneficial to you in addition to regular mammograms.