What are the benefits of digital breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography)?

Tomosynthesis is a new type of mammogram that yields three-dimensional images. The camera moves in an arc, and every few milliseconds it takes pictures every 15 degrees. Then the computer reconstructs all the data.

Amazingly it only takes a few extra seconds of compression and it can remove the complication that overlapping tissue can cause in traditional two-dimensional mammograms. Women are less likely to be called back for the false appearance of an abnormality when there's none there. Tomosynthesis increases accuracy in that it is harder for breast cancer or for something else to hide in the tissue.

Tomosynthesis may not be suitable for every woman but it's a powerful new tool in the fight against breast cancer.

With digital breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography), multiple studies have shown that the sensitivity for picking up breast cancers increases from 66% to 76%. The true positive rate, or specificity, increases from 81% to 89% and the beautiful thing about this is that the recall rate -- that’s the rate at which women have to come back for other images -- has been reduced by 43%. So, this is a great modality for putting a woman’s mind at rest when she gets her mammogram.

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The benefits of digital breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) were revealed in a study comparing the use of traditional digital mammography to 3D breast tomosynthesis in 13,856 women. Breast tomosynthesis resulted in:

  • 35% increase in cancer detection rates
  • 53% increase in detection rates of invasive cancers
  • 38% decline in call backs for additional images
  • 11% decline in biopsy rates

The amount of radiation is below the safety standards set forth by the government, and the benefit greatly outweighs any radiation exposure risk. The amount of radiation from a 3D mammogram is slightly higher than digital mammography and roughly equal to the radiation exposure of traditional mammography on film.

This content originally appeared on

Dr. Anne C. Hoyt, MD
Diagnostic Radiologist

Breast tissue is a mixture of varying amounts of fatty (non-dense) tissue, which appears dark on a mammogram, and fibroglandular (dense) tissue, which appears white on a mammogram. Breast cancers, like dense fibroglandular tissue, appear white on a mammogram. About half of all women have more dense tissue than fatty tissue. This makes it more difficult to distinguish a potential tumor.

3D mammography improves the detection of invasive breast cancers by 40%. Additionally, 15% fewer women are asked to return for additional evaluation following a 3D mammogram than a conventional mammogram.

During 3D mammography, the breast is positioned and compressed in the same manner as conventional mammography. During a four-second scan, the system moves across the breast in a small arc obtaining several very-low-dose images from multiple angles. The images are processed into a 3D image of the breast. The radiologist can scroll through the breast layer by layer, removing dense tissue and revealing breast cancer that otherwise may have been hidden.

The FDA approved digital breast tomosynthesis in 2011.

This content originally appeared online at UCLA Health.

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