The Latest in Breast Cancer Detection


There is more hope for better mammography is at the top of the list.

In much the way digital cameras changed the face of our family photo album, doctors say that so, too, does digital mammography have the potential to reshape the face of breast imaging.

“The experience for the woman — and the machine itself — are largely the same; but what the digital does is allow contrast manipulations and other types of computerized enhancements to give us a better, clearer picture of what is going on in the breast,” says Lee.

Experts like Etta Pisano, MD, who directed the largest clinical trail to date on digital mammography, says this clearer picture will help doctors discover many more cancers at an earlier, more easily treated stage.

“We did both digital and film mammograms with a year follow-up on 42,760 women — and we found that digital mammography was better at finding cancers in women under age 50, in women with dense breasts, and in pre- and perimenopausal women,” says Pisano, director of breast imaging at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Though there are no studies showing digital mammography saves lives, Pisano tells WebMD that “the kind of cancers we found are the kind that kill women, so we’re pretty sure digital mammography has lifesaving potential.”

On the downside, it doesn’t provide any advantage for postmenopausal women — those with the highest rate of breast ,”>

What’s in, Out, and in Question

Among screening procedures once considered important but now out of favor is ductal lavage. Here, doctors flushed fluid into the milk ducts and analyzed it for presence of abnormal cells to help determine risk of breast cancer.

The problem, says Lee, is that a negative result didn’t always mean you were OK. “We realized this test is pretty pointless, and it’s rarely done anymore,” says Lee.

Also sharing some doubt is breast ultrasound. Although it’s a safe and gentle way of imaging tissue without , because it was found to miss at least some of what is seen on a mammogram it, too, fell out of favor as a breast cancercancer screening tool.

But now new are showing ultrasound may be effective in detecting some abnormalities missed by a mammogram.

Bevers says it remains an especially important diagnostic tool for breast cystscysts (fluid-filled sacs) — and may help some women avoid a biopsy.

Still, experts say it can result in false positives when imaging other types of breast lesions, and in these instances, may increase the risk of unnecessary biopsies.

Meanwhile, all the experts we talked to told WebMD that right now, nothing beats a mammogram as an initial screening tool.

Says Lee: “Even if your facility does not offer digital mammography or any new advances, get a mammogram — this is still the best method we have for breast cancer screening.”