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For many years, mammography has been the go-to screening and diagnostic tool for identifying breast cancer. Researchers have developed a safe new diagnostic tool combining light-based detection with ultrasound, known as optical mammography.
For the better part of 30 years, mammography has been the go-to screening and diagnostic tool for identifying breast cancer. For many women, mammography has been life changing and in some cases, life- saving. While mammography has been a driving force in the fight against breast cancer, it is not without flaws.  In the past 15 years the mammography has evolved from x-ray imaging to digital images. There is now a new breast cancer diagnostic tool that shows promise as a safe alternative to mammography.

Benefits of a Mammogram

Having a mammogram can be an effective way to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages. When breast cancer is found in the beginning stages, treatment can begin quickly and prevent the cancer from developing further and limit the possibility of the cancer spreading to other areas of the body. Studies suggest that routine mammograms can decrease the number of deaths by breast cancer, especially in women over 50 years of age.

Screening Recommendations

The National Cancer Institute recommends that all women over the age of 40 have a mammogram done at least once every year or two. If your doctor has determined that you are at risk for developing breast cancer due to previous cancers or a family history of breast cancer, you will likely need to have a mammogram performed more frequently and at an earlier age. Additionally, if you have breast implants, notify the technician performing your mammogram so that he or she is able to get the best view of breast tissue.

Problems with Mammograms

While mammograms have long been the best option for early detection and screening for breast cancer, they are not without problems.  Mammograms may produce false negatives, meaning that the mammogram appears to be clear when in fact an abnormality is present. False-negatives may occur when the breast tissue is dense or fatty tissue is present. False-negatives occur more often in younger woman because older women tend to have less dense breast tissue. False positives can also occur during mammograms. A false positive refers to the radiologist reporting an abnormality when the breast is actually healthy. Anytime an abnormality is reported following a mammogram, additional testing is required to be certain of the result.

False positives tend to occur more often in young women, women with a prior history of breast cancer or biopsy and those women taking hormone replacement therapy drugs. Mammograms can also lead to over diagnosis and overtreatment. When a mammogram locates a certain type of cancer, it can be difficult for the doctors to tell if the cancer will need to be treated. This specific type of cancer is known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), it is when abnormal cells are present in the lining of the milk ducts. When DCIS is present it is impossible to tell if it needs treating or not, so all cancers of this kind are diagnosed and treated, leading to over-diagnosis and overtreatment in some cases.

Additionally, mammograms can expose women to high levels of radiation. While the amount of radiation exposed in one mammogram is small, repeated exposure can be harmful and in some cases may cause cancer. Women should speak with their doctor prior to each mammogram, generally the benefits of having the mammogram outweigh the risk of exposure to radiation.

Now that researchers have developed a new diagnostic tool to detect breast cancer, this new technology offers promise as a safer breast cancer detection tool. Optical mammography with its use of light as well as sound to detect breast abnormalities, significantly decreases the risks associated with breast cancer screenings. Researchers hope that optical mammography will give women a safer, more comfortable, more accurate way to screen and detect breast cancer.