The Future of Breast Cancer Screening
An array of high-tech detection techniques and devices is on the scientific horizon.
Improving Familiar Devices
The mammogram is the best tool for breast cancer screening at the moment. With about 85% accuracy, the X-ray device has spotted even malignancies that are too small to touch, ultimately saving many women from suffering and death.
But there's always room for improvement, and several groups are in hot pursuit of the next major screening method for breast cancer.
Digital mammography, which takes the X-ray image on computer rather than on film, is gradually becoming available. There are now about 300 such units in use around the country, according to the American Cancer Society.
The instrument "offers enormous potential" because the pictures can be manipulated, says Robert A. Smith, PhD, head of screening at the American Cancer Society.
Much like digital photographs currently taken by consumer digital cameras, breast images taken by digital mammography can be magnified, and the resolution can be adjusted to get a clearer picture.
While easier to use, digital mammography is not more successful at finding cancers than traditional mammograms -- and the cost of each machine tends to be prohibitive.
Computer-Aided Detection Devices (CAD)
Smith says the digital imaging technology could especially improve with better-programmed computer-aided detection (CAD) devices, which are now used by some labs to analyze standard mammograms and act as second-opinion readers for radiologists.
Early tests show CAD can help point out cancers otherwise missed by experts. Yet there is an ongoing debate about whether a machine can sufficiently replace a second radiologist in reviewing test results.
Medical experts who want to evaluate problems first found during a mammogram or a physical exam often turn to ultrasound technology. An ultrasound device releases sound waves into the body, and creates a picture of the breast from the bouncing back of the waves. The idea is that sound echoes differently of off masses of various consistencies, such as fluid-filled cysts, solid tumors, or normal tissue.
Ultrasound has been around for decades, but improvements to the technology promise to make it more helpful in looking for cancer. One advance of note is still in the experimental stages: an ultrasound that takes 3-D images of the breast as opposed to 2-D ones.