When ultrasound was added to mammography, 28% more cancers were found than when mammography was the only screening method used, researchers reported in the May 14 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
But four times as many women who had the combination screening had false positive findings that led to unnecessary biopsies.
The study confirms that mammography and ultrasound find more breast cancers than mammography alone in high-risk women, especially those with dense breasts.
But the high false positive rate and the lack of availability of screening ultrasound for breast cancer will likely limit its role as a screening tool, says radiologist and study researcher Wendie Berg, MD, PhD, of the American Radiology Services Inc., Johns Hopkins Green Spring.
"There is a shortage of trained personnel, so if everybody decided tomorrow to use ultrasound to screen for breast cancer, that couldn't happen," she tells WebMD.
Mammography, Ultrasound, and MRI
The American Cancer Society (ACS) now recommends that women with the highest risk for breast cancer undergo annual screening with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in addition to mammography.
These results will not change that recommendation, but ultrasound may represent an alternative screening approach for high-risk women who do not have access to MRI or MRI-guided biopsy, says ACS Director of Breast and Cervical Cancer Debbie Saslow, PhD.
"There are no guidelines for high-risk women without access to MRI," she tells WebMD. "We have said informally that these women can consider ultrasound, but it is important that they are made aware of the high rate of false positives."
The study involved 2,637 high-risk women with dense breasts screened at 21 different centers.
Half of the women in the study had been treated for a previous breast cancer and most others had one or more close family members who had had the disease.
Forty women received a diagnosis of breast cancer within 12 months of screening. Just half of these cancers were identified by mammography alone, while the combination of mammography plus screening ultrasound revealed 31 cancers.
Eight of the 40 cancers were not seen with either screening method but were detected during the yearlong follow-up.
False positive findings resulting in unnecessary biopsy occurred in one in 10 women screened with mammography and ultrasound, compared to one in 40 women screened with mammography alone, Berg says.
The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Avon Foundation.