FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Breast cancer screening has upgraded to the digital age at Womack Army Medical Center's Mammography Section. The department recently renovated to include a $1 million digital mammography imager with high resolution reading stations, equipment and a biopsy room.

After a 2006 Army Health Center Technology Assessment and Requirement Analysis team report determined all Army hospitals should upgrade to digital mammography imagers, Fort Bragg was put on the second tier of mammography sections to get the new equipment, said LaShon James, Mammography Section supervisor.

When the $350,000 renovation began in July, patients had to use a mobile mammography unit in a trailer, said James. "We made sure (the mobile unit was made by Hologic) because we knew we were getting Hologic equipment."

James added that although the situation wasn't ideal, it worked.

"The patients appreciated the fact that although we were going under renovation, we were still providing the same service," she said.

The process of performing digital mammograms will be exactly like before, said Maj. Rachel Burke, chief of Mammography Section.

"The technologist is still going to put your breast on the plate and compress the breast. The difference is how the image is processed," she said. "Before, the technologist took a film plate, brought it to an old-fashioned processer and developed a film just like a camera. Now the picture comes up digitally so it's instantaneous."

Images take three to four seconds to process, said James. "Even though we lost a unit, we're just as fast because we don't have to wait for the film to develop."

And speed isn't the only benefit to going digital. Technicians are able to fine-tune and enlarge images on high resolution screens.

"We have more leeway," said Burke. "Just playing with the contrast, you can do that with a digital picture. On a film screen, if it was under exposed or over exposed, you couldn't do anything with it."

Another advantage to digital imagery is the clarity, said Burke. "I'm really seeing it in the eyes of the technologists who have been trained (on film.) When they look at the one prior and the one taken this year, they usually say, 'wow!'"

The digital images are also used for biopsies. "It really helps patient comfort, especially in cases if there's a biopsy or a needle in their breast, not to wait an extra five to seven minutes for the film images," said Burke.

One of the biggest advantages of digital over film mammograms is portability of files.
"When you have a digital exam, we always have a copy. It's frustrating when people have checked out things and that's the end of it," said Burke.

"With mammography, prior films are the most important thing you can ever have. Everyone is unique to themselves. Having prior films to compare to the new ones is how we determine if something's changed," added Burke.

Although there have been breakthrough technologies with examining breasts through digital mammography, all women should continue self-exams.

"Women 40 and older should still get a mammogram every year," said Burke. "Also get one if you're younger than 40 and have a first degree Family member or high Family history of breast cancer.

"No matter what your age, if you feel something different about your breast, follow up with your Family physician," added James.

To get a referral for a mammogram, call your primary care physician.