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The End of the Road for Mammograms?

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 28, 2001 -- It sounds too good to be true, but there might actually be an end in sight to the slammogram ... er, mammogram.

One alternative is being studied by researchers led by Robert D. Howe, MD, of Harvard University. The hand-held scanner contains pressure sensors that are stroked over breast tissue. As this is being done, a map of the inside of the breast begins to form on a monitor. A sound emitted by the device lets the person doing the scanning know if they are achieving the pressure necessary to create adequate pictures. The entire process takes approximately 20 to 40 seconds and unlike mammograms involves no radiation.

In the February issue of the Archives of Surgery, Howe and colleagues report that they were able to get accurate estimates of the size of tumors and benign masses in the breasts of 23 women that were as good or better than the estimates achieved by physical exam and ultrasound.

Howe and colleagues say the device, known as a tactile imaging device, will be helpful in situations where suspicious findings need to be monitored over time. Instead of repeat mammograms, ultrasound, or even biopsy, doctors could possibly use the tactile imaging to see if a lump is growing or has changed in some way.

Another new way of looking inside the breast involves the use of light. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, are now testing a hand-held laser device in volunteers to determine how much information it can give them about the tissue inside the breast, including its components such as blood and fat. The purpose is to learn as much as possible about how and when changes in breast tissue occur so that women can be monitored appropriately before a cancer is detected.

"We know that mammograms do save lives, and they are very useful, but for a woman in her early 30s or late 20s who is told that she has lumpy breasts ... you want to monitor her more closely and there is always the debate about when to start mammograms," says Albert Cerussi, PhD, a co-author of a report on the laser, which appears in the February issue of Academic Radiology. "Not that X-ray mammograms are dangerous, but you wouldn't want one every week or every month. The thing with the lasers is that there is no known danger associated with the type of light we are using. So, it conceivably is a technique we can use as often as necessary."

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