Both an ultrasound and mammogram are used in the early detection of breast cancer, but each uses vastly different methods of analysis. An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves that bounce off the breast tissue to create an echo image. A mammogram uses x-rays that create shadows over dense structures, possibly revealing a cancerous tumor. There is ongoing controversy surrounding which process should be performed and when. Both are minimally-invasive, relatively quick procedures that can save a woman's life when used correctly.
It is strongly suggested that women do monthly self breast examinations to help detect cancerous tumors before they can spread to other healthy tissue. When a woman reaches a certain age or there are special risk factors involved, such as having a high incidence of breast cancer in a family, an ultrasound and mammogram may be ordered by a doctor. Sometimes both tests are performed; or only one test is performed. This is at the doctor's discretion.
During an ultrasound and mammogram, a woman's breast is analyzed for tumors, whether malignant or benign. A tumor that is benign is a harmless tumor, whereas a malignant tumor is cancerous and can spread to healthy tissues. Both an ultrasound and mammogram can identify lumps, or masses of tissue that are irregular and are not supposed to be there.
Some doctors will begin with a mammogram, which has a better ability to detect tumors as small as a grain of sand. Then an ultrasound may be used to analyze an area that is suspected of having a tumor. The ultrasound can provide a better picture when a location is very specific. Otherwise, an ultrasound technician may have difficulty spotting tiny irregular tissues.
A commonality between an ultrasound and mammogram is that neither can diagnose breast cancer 100%. They are helpful tools in spotting irregular tissue in advance, and have success rates of nearly three out of four cases, but both require a biopsy to adequately diagnose an irregular tissue as cancerous. During a biopsy, a needle typically extracts a small amount of tissue which is then analyzed in a lab to find out if it is benign or malignant.
One difference between an ultrasound and mammogram is that a mammogram can not differentiate between solid masses and fluid-filled cysts. This can cause a woman a great deal of emotional suffering if she is called back to the doctor for a biopsy. An ultrasound, on the other hand, can. In addition, an ultrasound can visualize all areas in and around the breast, while the mammogram is somewhat limited in the area it analyzes.