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To Your Health: 3D mammography aids early cancer detection

Evelyn Welke

Evelyn Welke

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Updated: November 18, 2012 6:45AM



The concept of screening mammography has been with us for decades, but it wasn’t until 1969 that units dedicated to breast imaging were made available.

Today, screening mammography is considered the gold standard for breast cancer detection.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for women between the ages of 35 and 54, and the second leading cause of cancer death for women of all ages.

A screening mammogram is used to detect breast disease in women who do not have symptoms. Once breast cancers start causing symptoms, they tend to be larger and are likely to have spread to other areas. Finding cancers while they are smaller and still confined to the breast greatly improves the chances of successful treatment.

Most doctors agree that early detection tests for breast cancer save thousands of lives every year.

3D Mammography

The technology of mammography continues to evolve.

Most recently, the development of digital breast tomosynthesis, more commonly known as 3D mammography, has taken breast imaging to the next level.

3D mammography is a new, FDA-approved imaging modality that improves the ability to detect smaller or hidden breast cancers.

Its accuracy also helps to deliver fewer false positives. Reducing false positives not only cuts down on callbacks for further imaging and decreases the need for biopsies, it spares unnecessary anxiety and saves money.

This screening tool is especially helpful for women who have dense breast tissue.

It’s estimated that half of women younger than 50 and a third of women older than 50 have dense breast tissue.

Such tissue can provide places for cancers to “hide” or can mimic cancer, leading to a false positive result.

Patients with scarring from other procedures and those who have already had breast cancer also are among those who can particularly benefit from 3D mammography.

How it Works

For the procedure, the breast is compressed as it is in a standard mammogram.

However, many women believe that 3D mammography offers a more comfortable experience. The machine’s ergonomic design includes a flex panel with a spring action that angles somewhat to the shape of the breast to improve comfort.

During the screening, the machine follows an arc-like progression over the breast, taking images at one-millimeter increments throughout the entire area of the breast.

At the conclusion of the scan, it reconstructs the images into both 3D and 2D pictures. Images may be reviewed one at a time or played back in a loop.

While no technology is infallible, the ability to look at the breast in high resolution millimeter-thin slices, one layer at a time significantly helps eliminate the problem of tumors being hidden by superimposed breast tissue.

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening mammograms for all women older than 40 and sooner for people who are at high risk. Women are about 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer than men, and the risk increases with age.

Other risk factors include a family or personal history of breast cancer. It’s important for women to discuss their personal risk factors with their doctors.

In the south suburbs, women who want to have a 3D mammogram can schedule one at Franciscan St. James Health.

Evelyn Welke is the lead supervising mammographer at the Franciscan St. James Breast Health and Wellness Center. Franciscan St. James Health is a member of the Southland Health Alliance.



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