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How Mammograms Save Lives

November 19, 2019
Published in: Cancer, Women

Women wearing pink shirts and holding hands

If not for the curious minds of a physicist, a surgeon, and a radiologist, countless patients may not have had access to a life saving screening tool for breast cancer. In fact, the history of the mammogram spans over a century from the discovery of x-rays to advanced 3D mammography. For the 1 in 8 women in the United States that are estimated to develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, early detection with the assistance of a mammogram can greatly improve their chances of survival. Let's take a closer look at this fascinating medical advancement.

The History of the Mammogram

You may not recognize the name W.C. Röntgen (often spelled Roentgen), but most of us are very familiar with what he is credited with discovering. In 1895, Röntgen was busy in his laboratory in Germany. He was working with tubes similar in shape and size to fluorescent lights. While experimenting with gases, electric voltage, and shielding the tube with heavy paper, he discovered he could produce a green fluorescent glow that could pass through the paper around the tube.

In fact, this new light or ray, could pass through most materials, even the human body, and create shadows of solid objects on film. Fittingly, the very first x-ray was of Röntgen's wife's hand and a ring on her finger. By 1896, the x-ray was being used in the United States and is considered a discovery that revolutionized the medicine. In recognition of his important work, Röntgen earned the first Nobel Peace Prize in Physics in 1901.

In 1913, Albert Solomon, a German surgeon, used the x-ray to examine breast tissue from mastectomy patients. By comparing them with healthy breast tissue, he could identify white masses or tumors in the mastectomy tissue. In the 1930's and 1940's work continued to precisely identify the tumors. In 1956, another major breakthrough occurred. Robert Egan, a radiologist from Houston, Texas found a non-invasive way to capture the detailed images of breast tissue patients using special films. For the first time, surgeons began conducting mammograms on patients before considering a mastectomy.

Ten years later, in 1966, the first compression mammogram was invented. By pressing down on the breast tissue while x-raying it, doctors could find harder to see micro-calcifications – an indicator of possible breast cancer. By 1992, the Mammography Quality Standards Act made it mandatory for all women to have access to mammograms. Another major advancement came in 2011 with the invention of 3D mammography with captures more images of the breast at different angles with greater clarity.

How Mammograms Help

Caregiver with her hand on a patient's shoulderThere are two types of mammograms – screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms. For women with no symptoms, a screening mammogram is used to capture images of the breast. For women experiencing symptoms, a diagnostic mammogram captures additional images of the breast. A mammogram alone can't determine whether an abnormality is breast cancer. However, along with self-exams, mammograms are crucial for early detection and can let your doctor know if more testing is needed. Often a biopsy is performed as a follow-up to a mammogram that shows abnormal results. This allows the tissue to be tested for a definitive diagnosis. See your doctor immediately if you're experiencing abnormal symptoms.

Some common signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Skin changes, such as swelling, redness, or other visible differences in one or both breasts
  • An increase in size or change in shape of the breast(s)
  • Changes in the appearance of one or both nipples
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk
  • General pain in/on any part of the breast
  • Lumps or nodes felt on or inside of the breast

For women age 40 and older, an annual mammogram is recommended. However, factors like family history could impact the recommended age for starting mammograms. Make sure to check with your doctor to determine when you should get a mammogram. All women should perform regular breast self-exams. For more information, visit www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-self-exam.

The Impact of Mammograms and Breast Cancer Treatments

Early detection of breast cancer through self-exams and mammograms plays an important role in increasing the chances of successful treatment. When you consider that 85% of breast cancer patients have no family history of breast cancer, it's clear that every woman should make self-exams and mammograms part of their health routine. The mortality rate of breast cancer patients has been on a steady decline since 1989. This is attributed to an increased awareness of the public about breast cancer, early detection, and advances in treatment. While decreases in deaths from breast cancer are encouraging, for women in the United States, breast cancer is still deadlier than any other cancer besides lung cancer, an indication that there is still more important work to be done.

The Augusta Health Women's Imaging Center provides state-of-the-art care in a comforting environment. If you or someone you know has questions about their health, visit Women's Imaging or call (540) 332-4486.