Better Breast Cancer Scans
As you probably know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a reminder for many women to get their regular mammograms.
I think most women would agree that mammograms are extremely uncomfortable, if not downright painful. Yet, as uncomfortable as breast scans are, they are the most accurate way to screen for breast cancer. Further, although doctors frequently distribute those self-exam diagrams as a guide for women to conduct regular self-exams at home, not everyone does them, nor is everyone adept at doing them.
If you have felt guilty about not conducting those self-exams at home, you can make up for it by diligently following your mammogram schedule. Recent studies show that a self-exam won’t detect smaller tumors or pre-cancerous conditions in the breast as well as a mammogram would.
But, breasts are tender and sensitive. Heck, I have a hard enough time when my cat decides to walk across them. Putting these delicate and sensitive tissues in a vise-like scanning machine just seems cruel.
To make matters worse, some women have very dense and fibrous breasts that are difficult to screen, which means they could go through all the unpleasantness of a mammogram, and the resulting images wouldn't necessarily reveal any anomalies.
Unfortunately, breast cancer is a major health concern, and early detection is key; so we endure the mammogram as a necessary evil. Well, take heart, sisters. The medical system is researching alternative breast screening methods.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
The MRI does not use any radiation for scanning, but rather uses a combination of radio waves, magnets, and computer imagery to take pictures of the inside of the body. You lie on a table that slides inside a big machine to take the pictures—there’s no smashing or manipulating of the breasts between metal or plastic plates to get a scan.
MRIs actually detect cancer more often than mammograms, but they are more expensive so are usually only used on women who are considered high-risk. To qualify as high-risk you must:
- Test positive for the BRCA1 or other breast cancer-specific genes
- Have a strong family history, or a first-degree relative (sister, mother, daughter) with breast cancer; and/or
- Have genetic syndromes that contribute to breast cancer, such as Cowden syndrome
Although MRIs are only available to certain segments of the population, it is possible that future advances will make the process more affordable, and more accessible to others.
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to make a picture of structures inside the body. Unlike traditional x-ray or a CT Scan, ultrasound doesn't involve any radiation. A technician applies a conductive gel to your breasts, and applies a hand-held device to the breasts to take the photos. Although they do press the device into your breasts, it’s not as uncomfortable as having them compressed between two plates.
Ultrasound is currently used as a companion to mammography and other breast cancer screenings, particularly for women who have dense or fibrous breasts. For example, if you have an inconclusive result on your mammogram, you may be referred for an ultrasound to get more information.
An ultrasound can detect solid masses, like tumors, and liquid masses, like cysts. Unfortunately, they can’t determine the nature of the mass, and they can’t detect all of the things a mammogram can.
CT Scans/CAT Scans (Computerized Tomography)
The CT scan is an x-ray technique, like the mammogram, but it takes photos of an entire cross section of your body rather than one area. As happens with an MRI, you lie on a table that slides into a machine to take the photos. The machine takes photos from several different angles and puts them together to create a detailed image.
Currently CT scans are not used as a breast cancer screening tool, they are used after diagnosis to determine if the cancer has spread. This in part because you have to drink a contrast dye that could cause kidney damage; drinking the dye once in a lifetime might not be an issue, doing it once a year (or more) could potentially cause problems.
However, both the CT scan and the mammogram use the same amount of radiation, and doctors are trying to refine the process and determine if the CT scan can be used in the future as a breast cancer screening tool.
What It All Means
Right now, the mammogram is the only screening test that is both accurate and accessible to everyone. But we are getting closer to finding alternatives that are accurate, accessible, and affordable without all the pain and discomfort.
Content provided to the community by the Healthboards Editorial Staff.