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Although mammography is recognised as a reliable test for detecting breast cancer, it does have limitations. In particular, for women with dense breast tissue, small breast cancers can be missed due to masking by the overlying tissue. False positives can also result due to tissue overlapping giving composite or summation density leading to normal tissue appearing as abnormal, resulting in the need for further testing.1
Breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) is a newer advanced technology that has been designed to overcome the limitations and challenges associated with conventional 2D mammography by reducing tissue overlap leading to an increase in sensitivity and specificity of breast cancer detection.2,3
Numerous clinical studies have shown that adding breast tomosynthesis to a diagnostic mammogram increases the breast cancer detection rate. It decreases the need for additional mammographic work up and the patient recall to breast screen assessment clinics, thus reducing the number of false positive cases.2,4,5,6,7
The breast tomosynthesis examination uses low-dose X-rays, and can be carried out as a part of a diagnostic study at the same time as the 2D mammogram. It does, however, require newer and specialised equipment. During a breast tomosynthesis examination, the X-ray arm sweeps in an arc over the breast. Images are taken at varying angles, and the images are then reconstructed using a computer into thin slices of 3D volume for review by the radiologist. The thin slices allow the radiologist to view the structures of the breast layer by layer, eliminating the effects of overlapping of the breast tissue.
Breast tomosynthesis allows better visualisation and characterization of masses, asymmetric densities, and areas of true architectural distortions in the breast leading to a reduction in the number of biopsies required.8,9
At the current level of technology and use, tomosynthesis is not recommended for the assessment of microcalcifications. These are more clearly visible using standard 2D images.
Breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) is not yet approved, and has limited availability as part of the Australian screening program through BreastScreen Australia.10 However, it is available in some private and public health breast imaging services as an accepted adjunct to the standard diagnostic mammogram.
In addition to the established indications for diagnostic mammography (see Diagnostic Mammography), breast tomosynthesis might be of particular benefit in:
Breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) should be carried out after diagnostic mammography when the radiologist feels that tomosynthesis could provide additional valuable diagnostic information.
There are no absolute contraindications for breast tomosynthesis.
These are generally the same as diagnostic mammography.
Very occasionally, bruising or splitting of the skin occurs. Breast implant rupture has been reported; however, the risk is very low. Care is taken in the degree of compression in patients with breast implants to avoid rupture.
There is a slight increase in radiation dose when tomosynthesis follows routine diagnostic 2D imaging. However, the total X-ray dose is still small, and the risk of developing radiation-induced breast cancer from mammography including tomosynthesis remains very low.12,13
The Health Protection Agency of the United Kingdom estimates the risk of an additional cancer in a lifetime from a single mammographic examination to be in the low-risk range: 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.12 This is the same risk of developing a cancer as that which arises from exposure to the natural background radiation accumulated from the normal environment in one year.
There is no specific post procedural care required.
2D mammography is recognised as the best screening test for early breast cancer, and breast tomosynthesis test has additional diagnostic accuracy. It is important to note that mammography does not detect all breast cancers, even when the cancer has caused a lump that can be felt.
In such a circumstance, a normal mammogram or breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) examination does not mean that the lump can be ignored. In this situation, other diagnostic tests, such as breast ultrasound or breast MRI and/or a procedure, such as fine needle aspiration (FNA) or needle core biopsy, might be necessary to find out the cause of the lump. For high-risk asymptomatic patients breast MRI is the investigation of choice.
Page last modified on 1/12/2016.
RANZCR® is not aware that any person intends to act or rely upon the opinions, advices or information contained in this publication or of the manner in which it might be possible to do so. It issues no invitation to any person to act or rely upon such opinions, advices or information or any of them and it accepts no responsibility for any of them.
RANZCR® intends by this statement to exclude liability for any such opinions, advices or information. The content of this publication is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. It is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient and his/her doctor. Some of the tests and procedures included in this publication may not be available at all radiology providers.
RANZCR® recommends that any specific questions regarding any procedure be discussed with a person's family doctor or medical specialist. Whilst every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this publication, RANZCR®, its Board, officers and employees assume no responsibility for its content, use, or interpretation. Each person should rely on their own inquires before making decisions that touch their own interests.