What are the imaging tests used to diagnose breast disease?

Imaging tests include:

Diagnostic mammograms: Although mammograms are mostly used for screening, they can also be used to examine the breast of a woman who has a breast problem. This can be a breast mass, nipple discharge, or an abnormality that was found on a screening mammogram. In some cases, special images known as cone views with magnification are used to make a small area of abnormal breast tissue easier to evaluate.

A diagnostic mammogram can show:
  • That the abnormality is not worrisome at all. In these cases the woman can usually return to having routine yearly mammograms.
  • That a lesion (area of abnormal tissue) has a high likelihood of being benign (not cancer). In these cases, it is common to ask the woman to come back sooner than usual for her next mammogram, usually in 4 to 6 months.
  • That the lesion is more suspicious, and a biopsy is needed to tell if it is cancer.
Even if the mammograms show no tumor, if you or your doctor can feel a lump, a biopsy is usually needed to make sure it isn't cancer. One exception would be if an ultrasound exam finds that the lump is a simple cyst (a fluid-filled sac), which is very unlikely to be cancerous.
Digital mammograms: A digital mammogram (also known as a full-field digital mammogram, or FFDM) is like a standard mammogram in that x-rays are used to produce an image of your breast. The differences are in the way the image is recorded, viewed by the doctor, and stored. Standard mammograms are recorded on large sheets of photographic film. Digital mammograms are recorded and stored on a computer. After the exam, the doctor can look at them on a computer screen and adjust the image size, brightness, or contrast to see certain areas more clearly. Digital images can also be sent electronically to another site for a remote consult with breast specialists. Many centers do not offer the digital option, but it is becoming more widely available with time.

A recent large study found that a FFDM was more accurate in finding cancers in women younger than 50 and in women with dense breast tissue, although the rates of inconclusive results were similar between FFDM and film mammograms. It is important to remember that a standard film mammogram also is effective for these groups of women, and that they should not miss their regular mammogram if a digital mammogram is not available.

Other imaging tests may also be used.  You can find more information on these at the American Cancer Society's Web site,

Continue Learning about Diagnostic Imaging

Ask Oz and Roizen: Coronary Calcium Scanning, and MRIs' Effect on Tattoos
Ask Oz and Roizen: Coronary Calcium Scanning, and MRIs' Effect on Tattoos
Q: My 45-year-old brother is a fireman. When he started getting short of breath, his GP sent him to a cardiologist. Everyone figured it was asthma, bu...
Read More
Know Before You Go: Radiation
Know Before You Go: Radiation
When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you may feel like you’re all alone—but you’re not. You’ll have a team of healthcare providers (HCPs) dedicated...
Read More
How can radiology compliance for a medical condition be monitored?
Philip Lisagor, MDPhilip Lisagor, MD
Imaging/radiology compliance for a medical condition can be monitored. Imaging orders can be stored ...
More Answers
What do the results of a bone density test mean?
Two different scores are used to report the results of bone density tests. First, a T-score compares...
More Answers

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.