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For Some, Digital Mammogram Beats X-Ray

A new study finds that digital mammograms are better at detecting breast cancer in some women than traditional methods that rely on X-ray film. The results apply to women under 50, those who have dense breasts, and those who are pre-menopausal or had a last menstrual period within 12 months of their mammograms.

Summary of Study Findings

Digital mammography takes an electronic image of the breast, allowing the data to be stored on a computer and enhanced, magnified, or manipulated for further evaluation. Film mammography uses film to capture and display the image of the breast.

The Digital Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial, begun in October 2001, enrolled 49,528 women, who had no signs of breast cancer, at 33 sites in the United States. The study showed that digital and film mammography had very similar screening accuracy for the entire population of women in the study.

Digital mammography was significantly better in screening women who were:

-- under age 50 (no matter what level of breast tissue density they had)

-- of any age with very dense or extremely dense breasts. (A radiologist or doctor will alert a patient if her breasts are dense).

-- pre-menopausal or perimenopausal women of any age (a woman who had her last menstrual period within 12 months of a mammogram)

There is no apparent benefit of digital over film mammography for women who fit all of the following three categories:

-- over age 50

-- those who do not have dense or very dense breast tissue

-- those who are not still menstruating

Some earlier studies had suggested that digital mammography would result in fewer false positives than film mammography. But this latest study, which was sponsored by the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis at the National Cancer Institute, found that the rates of false positives for digital mammography and traditional mammography were the same.

Source: National Cancer Institute

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.