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Is 3-D mammography for me?

Learn more about this high-tech tool for finding breast cancer early

In health care settings around the country, women step up — to make a positive move for their health: They get a mammogram. These screenings are credited with saving many lives by finding breast cancer early. And that’s when it’s often easier to treat, according to the National Cancer Institute.

One of the latest advances for detecting breast cancer is 3-D mammography. The following can help you learn more about this newer type of breast imaging.

Q. What is 3-D mammography exactly — and how does it work?

A. During this type of mammogram, a low-dose X-ray machine sweeps over the breast, taking multiple images from different angles. A computer combines all these images to create a 3-D picture of the breast.

Standard 2-D mammography takes just two images of the breast — one from top to bottom, the other from side-to-side.

Q. When is 3-D mammography used?

A. Just like standard mammography, it has two purposes. One is for routine screening — to help find breast cancer early, before any symptoms. The other is as a diagnostic tool when breast symptoms are present, such as a lump or discharge from a nipple.

Q. Does it have advantages?

A. With its multiple images of breast tissue, a 3-D mammogram may be more accurate than a standard one. But research is ongoing on the pros and cons — and whether 3-D mammography may:

  • Cause fewer false alarms — results that indicate cancer may be present when it’s not
  • Lead to fewer unnecessary biopsies or additional tests

Q. Are there risks?

A. The radiation dose from a 3-D mammogram tends to be higher than from 2-D images. But it’s still within U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved safe levels for mammography.

Q. Is a 3-D mammogram right for me?

A. Talk with your doctor about what’s best for you, including how often to be screened. Some doctors may consider 3-D mammography for women with dense breasts.*

What to do next

Understand your benefits better. Sometimes medical tests — including mammograms — fall under the category of either preventive or diagnostic care. Knowing the difference can help you know what to expect when it comes to costs.

This quick quiz can help

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*Effective April 1, 2017, UnitedHealthcare began providing coverage for three-dimensional (3-D) mammography, for breast cancer screening and diagnostic testing. Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered. 

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