News | Published January 13, 2020 | Written by Sara Marker, LPN, patient care coordinator, Mount Nittany Health Breast Care Center

Screening and diagnostic mammograms: What’s the difference?

Sara Marker, LPN, patient care coordinator, Mount Nittany Health Breast Care Center

Mammogram basics
A mammogram is an imaging procedure that uses low energy X-rays to exam the breast tissue for screening and diagnosis. It is one of the best tools for early detection of breast cancer or any other abnormalities. Mammography offers such high quality images that doctors can sometimes identify a mass in the breast even before you are able to detect it with a self-exam. That is the main reason why regular yearly screening visits are so important.

It’s no secret that mammograms aren’t always the most comfortable exams. This is because the breast needs to be compressed as thinly as possible. Compressing the breast spreads out the tissue and reduces overlap of tissues, and this helps radiologists to see better through the breast tissue. Additionally, compression reduces the amount of radiation to the breast; the thinner the breast is compressed, the less radiation is needed to get an adequate image. The good news is, these images take only a few seconds, and if mammograms are especially uncomfortable for you, you can inform your technologist and she will work with you to make your exam as comfortable as possible.

Screening mammograms
Screening mammograms are the exams given when a patient comes in for routine testing. Screening mammograms should begin at the age of 40 and be performed annually, unless there are reasons to start screening earlier, such as family history or BRCA gene mutation. These should be scheduled if you are asymptomatic and have no lumps or other concerns.

Diagnostic mammograms.
A diagnostic mammogram should be scheduled if you have any new concerns such as breast lumps, nipple discharge, skin changes, nipple inversion or other nipple changes, focal breast pain or any other symptom that is new or concerning for you.

A diagnostic visit will also be ordered if a patient is called after a screening mammogram to return for additional imaging. This can understandably be scary; however, most abnormal findings on a mammogram study are not breast cancer. In fact, about 10 percent of women who get a screening mammogram will be called back for additional imaging, which may involve additional mammogram images and/or ultrasound. Often the findings are benign and could represent an overlap of normal tissue or findings such as cysts.

Some women will also need a biopsy to further evaluate an area, but the majority of biopsies are also benign. During a diagnostic appointment, the additional imaging is performed, with the results and further recommendations discussed with the radiologist.

Whether you’re preparing for your first annual mammogram screening or preparing to visit us for a follow-up diagnostic visit, our team of professionals is here to provide you with the best personalized care, and offer comfort and compassion. For more information on mammograms and Mount Nittany Health Breast Care Center, call 814.234.6752 or visit

Sara Marker, LPN, serves as patient care coordinator for Mount Nittany Health Breast Care Center.

This article originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times.