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The Latest in Breast Cancer Detection

New breast screening technologies are offering women more individualized care -- and a better chance at survival.

A Bigger Slice of Life

Among the very newest screening techniques undergoing testing is "tomosynthesis." Using a form of digital mammography, it works to create a three-dimensional picture of the breast, allowing doctors to see between layers of tissue.

"Not only does this appear to yield improved detection, but it will hopefully reduce the number of 'false callbacks' -- and that can help reduce a lot of anxiety," says Lee.

Digital tomosynthesis is currently being tested at several major medical centers including NYU, Yale, and Duke. It may become more widely available for testing in the near future.

Another up-and-coming advance, says Lee, is positron emission mammography, or PEM. It involves injecting the body with a small amount of radioactive tracer dye, which is used by the PEM scan to image the breast.

"All these extra imaging techniques are not meant to replace mammogram but rather act as extra tools for women at increased risk, and in some instances, to help avoid unnecessary biopsies," says Lee.

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 radiation, 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 clinical trials 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."

Reviewed on October 03, 2007

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