4 Alternatives to Breast Cancer Detection

( - Breast Cancer Detection: According to the American Medical Association, breast cancer is the leading cause of premature death among US women [1], [2]. Thus, women have a strong reason to participate in effective breast cancer detection. For decades, women have learned about breast cancer detection choices from experts, followed the directives, and hoped for more alternatives in the future.

Current Recommendations: Though the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) most recent recommendation was followed with quite a bit of controversy, they currently recommend that women with an average risk of breast cancer undergo regular screening mammography starting at age 45 – (the previous starting age was 40) [1]. The ACS also recommends that women of average risk should undergo regular screening mammography every other year starting at age 55.

And though a monthly self-breast exam had been the norm for many years, the ACS is no longer recommending them (either from a medical provider or through self-exams), having moved to the recommendation of a mammogram instead [1].

Regardless of starting age and interval time, the two most common choices – self-breast exam and mammogram – had been the only tried and true, tested, researched and recommended breast cancer detection methods for many years. They are and have been well supported by the medical community and women have tended to follow the guidelines as a way of hoping to ensure early detection [3].

Today, though still few, there are some alternatives.

1. Breast Ultrasound

Breast ultrasound is a method of breast cancer detection that is used to follow-up with findings from routine mammograms and breast self-exams. Ultrasound (or sonography) uses sound waves as opposed to the use of small doses of radiation with mammography [4]. The good news, there are no lasting side effects with ultrasound! In addition, it is non-invasive and painless.

Ultrasound is most effective, however, when used in conjunction with mammography – as an extension of a mammogram – and can be most beneficial when examining breast tissue that is denser. It can be used to target an area of a mammogram in question without additional radiation.

According to the ACS:

“Breast ultrasound is helpful when looking for breast changes that can be felt but not seen on a mammogram or changes in women with dense breast tissue. It also can be used to look at a change that may have been seen on a mammogram. Ultrasound can be used to tell the difference between fluid-filled cysts and solid masses” [5].

Breast ultrasound uses sound waves to create a computer image of the inside of the breast. It involves the use of a transducer (probe) and ultrasound gel placed directly on the skin [6]. Breast ultrasound is less expensive than traditional mammograms and is readily available throughout the United States [5].

2. Breast MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

Breast MRI is another complimentary breast cancer detection alternative. A breast MRI is based on neither sound waves nor radiation. Instead, it uses magnets and radio waves to create an image. An MRI is a tool that can create detailed and cross-sectional pictures of the inside of the breast [7].

The breast MRI is considered to be more invasive than both mammography and ultrasound as it often requires the administration of a contrast dye injected via an IV into your bloodstream.

The gadolinium, or dye, is a contrast material that allows for greater breast cancer detection [8]. Breast MRIs are used most often with women who are in a high risk category or who have denser breast tissue.

A breast MRI is also used to determine the extent of cancer, to evaluate hard-to-assess abnormalities, to evaluate lumpectomy sites, to evaluate breast implants, and as a follow up to chemotherapy treatments [8].

A breast MRI can distinguish between scar tissue and tumors, guide a biopsy, screen for cancer in women who are at a very high risk for breast cancer, and screen for cancer in women with very, very dense breast tissue [9].

A breast MRI takes approximately 45 minutes to complete, often times includes the administration of a contrast dye, and requires patients to remain still while moving through a tube-like machine. The breast MRI is a difficult test for individuals who have feelings of claustrophobia [10].

3. Tomosynthesis

Tomosynthesis is often times described as an extension or expansion of the technology used within mammography [11], [12]. In simple terms, tomosynthesis is a 3D image rather than the standard 2D image offered through mammography.

Per the experts at Massachusetts General Hospital who pioneered the tomosynthesis technology, “…[breast] tomosynthesis is a breakthrough in mammography that provides a clearer, more accurage view compared to digital mammography alone” [13]. The benefits of breast tomosynthesis can include earlier detection, greater accuracy, fewer “unnecessary biopsies,” greater likelihood of multiple breast tumor detection, and clearer images of denser breast tissue [13].

4. Thermography

Breast thermography is a relatively new – and very controversial – alternative to traditional breast cancer detection methods. It does not use radiation, sound waves, magnets nor radio waves. Instead, it relies on infrared imaging. It is completely non-invasive with no dyes or after effects whatsoever. In addition, when compared to other methods, it is relatively quick: it can take as little as fifteen minutes to complete [14].

Because it is invasive-free and radiation free, women can choose thermography at earlier ages and maintain permanent breast records – longitudinal documentation – allowing doctors to detect changes over time as needed.

Early tests using thermography provide women with baseline images that can be of significant benefit throughout a lifetime. However, according to Susan G. Komen, “Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the American College of Radiology views thermography as a useful breast screening or imaging tool” [12].

Like ultrasound and MRIs, thermography is not approved as a replacement for traditional mammograms and breast self-exams at this time. It is clear that more research is needed in this area before this alternative becomes a recommended choice.

Without a doubt, with each passing year, researchers are developing more and better choices for women – from mammography to self-exams to ultrasound to MRIs to tomosynthesis – to use to assist with early breast cancer detection. It is just a matter of time before there are even more detection choices for all!

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