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August 2013

Expanding the Screening Arsenal for Breast Cancer

Until a cure is found, early detection remains the soundest strategy we have against breast cancer. The best tool at hand is mammography. It saves women's lives. But it's not perfect. As a result, scientists are developing other imaging tests to help spot breast cancer.

Photo of a woman standing with her doctor

Screening shortfalls

Mammography uses X-rays to scan a woman's breasts for problems. The technology helps find breast cancer in its earliest stages, when it's easier to treat. According to the latest national survey, about 72 percent of American women ages 50 to 74 have had a recommended mammogram.

Despite its robust use, mammography falls short in some respects. Namely, it doesn't find all cases of breast cancer. It may also suggest cancer when it isn't present. These stressful scenarios are more common in younger women, who tend to have denser breasts.

A woman's breasts contain fat, gland cells, and connective tissue. As a woman ages, her breasts typically become more fatty. Younger women may have dense breasts that can affect the results of a mammogram. Unlike fat, dense breast tissue can hide cancerous tumors, blocking discovery.

Newer screening options

Breast tomosynthesis. Also known as 3D mammography, this technique combines X-rays with the power of a computer. Numerous X-rays of a woman's breast are taken at different angles and assembled into a 3D computer image. This detailed picture may help doctors better see breast cancer. Cons: Compared with a mammogram, tomosynthesis can expose a woman to higher doses of radiation. Cost can also be a concern.

MRI. With magnets and radio waves, MRI creates cross-sectional images of a woman's breast. During the procedure, a woman lies face down on a table that slides into a tube-shaped machine. A large magnet then moves around the patient, emitting radio waves. A computer receives the emissions and produces high-quality images. MRI is frequently used with mammography to screen women at high risk for breast cancer. Cons: A woman must remain very still during the test for the best results. It can also be expensive.

Breast ultrasound. Like sonar on a ship, this screening tool uses sound waves. But instead of searching the ocean depths, it delves into the human body. A technician uses a hand-held instrument called a transducer to scan the body with sound waves. A connected computer translates the transmissions into a computer image. This widely available test can help confirm breast cancer after an abnormal mammogram. Con: Its sensitivity isn't on par with other imaging tests.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.


Click here to learn more about breast cancer diagnosis and screening. 



Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 7/15/2013
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