On the other side of the spectrum is the MRI
test used to generate a more detailed view inside the breast. This
expensive test is typically only reserved for high-risk patients. The
result -- some cancers that could be detected are going undetected due to the
cost and effort required.
Now scientists at the Mayo Clinic are experimenting with a new, cheaper method
that may allow the accuracy
of MRI at a fraction of a cost. New imaging methods are also being
developed, which create an image that the radiologist views in three dimensions
using special glasses, similar in basic concept to a 3D movie.
The new technology is still being assessed for viability, but many physicians
see it as critical. In women with dense breast tissue, it is virtually
impossible to detect cancer using X-rays. The new methods may help with
this group of women. It is estimated that half of women younger than 50
and a third of women over 50 have dense breasts. Worst of all, dense
breasts have been shown to have a higher cancer risk, so the most at risk group
is the hardest to detect, a dangerous mix.
For women today with dense breasts (which a doctor can determine in a mammogram
check), this news may be rather startling. With current available methods
there's little that can be done either.
American Cancer Society screening specialist Robert Smith stated, "It's a
major issue in the field now, more and more, how to address the imaging needs
of women with significant breast density. We and women and everyone else
is kind of left wondering what would be best under what circumstances.”
Dr. Mary S. Newell, assistant breast-imaging chief at Emory University in
Atlanta added that "we can do better than we're doing." She's
helping test one of the 3D approaches.
Traditional mammograms work by X-raying breast tissue. Shadows indicate
denser spots, which could be tumors. Regular mammograms for women over 40
are very beneficial as they can catch cancer earlier, in a more treatable stage.
Dense breasts however show up as one big shadowy mass.
Currently there are two alternatives. Some women have elected to go for
ultrasound scans of their dense breasts. There have been a handful of
studies supporting this approach, but it remains controversial and many
physicians remain skeptical. Others go for MRIs, which can spot unusual blood
flow, indicating a tumor. However, the MRI carries a $1,000 plus price
tag. Furthermore, both methods frequently have false positives, creating
hassle and unnecessary fear for the patient.
One of the new methods is "stereo mammograms". These mammograms
help standard 2D mammogram images taken by literally smushing the woman's
breast into mammogram unit, as usual to flatten the breast. The image is
only a little different than standard ones, but by using special glasses that
utilize stereoscopic effects in the differences in angles between the two eyes,
a pseudo-3D image is created. This image can help doctors spot unseen
spots under soft tissue.
In a new soon-to-be-published study in which Emory radiologists gave both the
classic and the new stereo scan mammograms to patients, the new method improved
detection by 23 percent and lowered false positives by 46 percent.
The second method, being developed by the Mayo Clinic, is named molecular
breast imaging, or MBI. It detects tumor not by a visual, but by how it
acts. Doctors inject a radioactive tracer, typically used in heart
tests. It has been found that the tracer collects in breast tumors and
when exposed to a small gamma ray camera it lights up for easy viewing and
detection of tumors.
Unlike MRIs, which require a separate visit and massive expensive equipment,
the new scan can be done on the same visit and in the same room as the X-ray
machine said Mayo radiology fellow Carrie Beth Hruska.
The MBI method in a recent test proved almost as accurate as the MRI, a proven
technology. It detected 51 tumors in 30 patients, while the MRI found 53
cancers in 31 patients. Dr. Hruska presented these results at a Defense
Department breast cancer conference last week.
The Mayo clinic will soon release the full results of their study, which tested
2,000 women with the new method. In the fall, additional government
funding is expected to bring the method to more hospitals, as it is tested more
While everyone wants to cure cancer, detection is equally important.
These new methods promise to save lives.