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
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.