As the director of breast imaging at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, I am often asked to give public talks during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Invariably, during the question-and-answer period, someone in the crowd timidly asks me to explain what exactly I do as a radiologist.
Radiologists are doctors who interpret images from X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, PET scans, MRI scans and mammograms. We have many years of specialized training — four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, five years of residency training in diagnostic radiology and a final year of subspecialized fellowship training for those of us who choose to focus on a specific aspect of radiology, such as breast imaging.
Radiologists do not “take” the actual images; radiology technologists are the health professionals who do that. Our job is to review the final images, interpret the findings in the context of the patient’s clinical history and provide a written report that details the findings and provides an impression of those findings. We also perform clinical examinations and procedures, such as minimally invasive outpatient breast biopsies.
On a typical day, a breast imaging radiologist will interpret screening mammograms (annual breast health tests performed for women who aren’t having any breast problems or concerns), diagnostic mammograms and ultrasounds (for women who come to us with a specific breast complaint or abnormality) and breast MRIs. We might also perform breast biopsies or remove breast cysts. We educate patients about normal breast findings, counsel patients about their breast biopsy results and help organize appointments with breast surgeons when necessary.
Working in an academic medical setting such as UTMB promotes a multidisciplinary approach to patient care, meaning that I collaborate every day with other breast specialists including breast surgeons, plastic surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and pathologists to develop appropriate treatment plans for individual patients. This team approach ensures that each patient receives a medical plan designed specifically for her unique medical situation.
So, in short, I’m a “breast cancer doctor” in that the primary goal of breast radiologists is to diagnose breast cancer in men and women. Statistically, however, most of my patients won’t ever have breast cancer, so most of what I do entails diagnosing noncancerous conditions of the breast, including breast cysts, fibroadenomas and benign breast calcifications.
My job has allowed me to meet patients from all walks of life and has given me the opportunity to work with a tremendously diverse and multitalented group of health professionals.
I’ve also had the hugely rewarding opportunity to offer broad-ranging community education and outreach.
My patients make me proud and I feel blessed to have such a gratifying career.