The answer is…
There are simply far too many variations among women for us to make a blanket statement that one is better than the other. It’s not an issue of ultrasound vs. mammogram. It’s an issue of what is the right type of care for you.
An ultrasound is generally not used as the primary screening tool for breast cancer. However, when used in conjunction with mammography, it can complement other breast cancer screening tools. Often, an ultrasound will be ordered when an abnormality is detected on a mammogram.
But before we continue, let’s look at the differences between the two.
Ultrasound vs. Mammogram: The Key Differences.
A mammogram uses a low dose of radiation to take an image of the breast. The tissue is compressed between two plates in order for the best image to be taken.
An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves and converts them to an image. No radiation is involved. The soundwaves are sent through a wand called a transducer. No plates are involved and the breasts are not flattened.
The images are also different—especially if you have a 3D mammogram. A 3D mammogram shows a detailed picture of the breast by taking images in “slices” as the machine moves around the breast. The result is roughly 300 detailed images that help our radiologists detect abnormalities, and it’s particularly useful for women with dense breasts.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of using an ultrasound?
The main benefit of an ultrasound is that it is another tool we use to help detect breast cancer. For example, if a woman feels a lump or feels a change in her breast, an ultrasound would be useful to obtain additional characteristics of the area of concern in order to determine if the lump/change is something benign (cyst, lymph node, benign tissue) or if it is something suspicious for cancer.
Which one should I use?
Every case is different, and it’s much more than just ultrasound vs. mammogram. We recommend following your doctor’s treatment plan. Often, this will include having regular mammograms and then, if needed, supplement these with ultrasounds if you have symptoms. This is because breast ultrasounds could possibly miss some earlier forms of cancer.
3D Mammograms have been shown to find more cancers than 2D mammograms, and they also reduce the number of false-positive exams. Conway Medical Center provides 3D mammograms for all patients.
An ultrasound may be a good choice for you if:
- You have breast problems/symptoms and you are under age 30
- You have breast problems/symptoms while you are pregnant (This is because an ultrasound does not use radiation, while a mammography does.)
- You have a cyst that needs to be drained
This is not an all-inclusive list. There may be other reasons that your provider would like you to have a breast ultrasound.
Should I have an ultrasound instead of a mammogram?
In general, no. It’s possible that breast ultrasounds may miss some smaller tumors that can be detected with mammography. In addition, ultrasounds are less accurate if you are overweight or have large breasts.
If you are pregnant, you should not have a mammogram. However, it is recommended that you discuss any breast changes with your doctor. Certain symptoms could indicate the need for an ultrasound.
Do I need to do anything special to prepare for an ultrasound?
In some ways, preparing for a breast ultrasound is very similar to preparing for a mammogram. Just remember:
- Do not wear lotion or powder on your breasts when you have your test.
- Remember to wear loose-fitting clothing or clothes that you can easily take off.
- While the gel used for the test typically does not stain clothing, you may prefer to wear older clothing on the day of the test.
What if I’ve had an abnormal mammogram?
Then it’s possible you should have an ultrasound as an additional screening tool.
The radiologist who reviewed your mammogram will typically make a specific recommendation of what additional exams should be done. This may include additional exams such as a diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound, MRI or a biopsy.
What happens during a breast biopsy?
There are different types of breast biopsies. They all involve removing a piece of the breast tissue in question so it can be examined thoroughly to determine if it is cancer. The different types include:
- Core needle biopsy, where a needle is guided toward the affected area. Small pieces of tissue are removed.
- Fine needle aspiration, where an extremely thin needle is placed into the area of concern, and a sample is removed.
- Open biopsy, where an actual incision is made in the breast and the surgeon removes all of the lump or the affected area.
Is A Breast Biopsy Painful?
We use local anesthetic if the procedure is done in the radiology department or general anesthesia during surgery. Most women report feeling pressure during the needle biopsy.
Conway Medical Center Imaging Services
Decades of experience combined with a compassionate staff and state-of-the-art technology equal an imaging center that is one of the best in the region. Our technologists are state-certified and our physicians have received board-certification in radiology.
We are accredited by the American College of Radiology in mammography, MRI, ultrasound, and nuclear medicine.
In addition to mammograms and ultrasounds, our imaging services offer the following services:
- Computed Tomography (CT scans)
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI )
- Angiography and Interventional Radiology
- Nuclear Medicine including SPECT/CT
- Digital Mammography including 3D Mammography
- Stereotactic Breast Biopsy
- Ultrasound-guided breast biopsy
- Bone Density Testing
- Positron Emission Tomography/CT (PET/CT)
Not sure if you need an ultrasound vs. a mammogram? We understand that you may have a lot of questions. We want you to understand that we are dedicated to answering them and providing you with the highest quality of care. Contact us so you can feel confident in your decision.
American Cancer Society. “Ultrasound for Cancer.” Online.
Johns Hopkins. “Treatment Tests and Therapies.” Online.
Mayo Clinic. “PET Scan.” Online.