Monday Medical: Detecting breast cancer at YVMC
October 16, 2011
Steamboat Springs — October may be Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but it's a subject that is at the forefront of my mind every day of the year.
One of the most important aspects of my job is detecting and diagnosing breast cancer, particularly early cancers that cannot be felt. This is accomplished through screening mammography, where X-rays are taken of the breasts to look for changes that could be a sign of cancer.
Medical studies including nearly half a million women have shown a 30 percent decrease in breast cancer deaths since 1990, due in large part to early detection with screening mammography. In fact, screening mammography is the only imaging modality proven to reduce the number of deaths caused by breast cancer.
Mammograms allow us to see through the breast tissue, looking for signs of cancer such as abnormal calcifications, masses or distortion of the breast tissue. Mammography detects about 75 percent of cancers at least one year before they can be felt.
The American Cancer Society, American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging agree that women should be screened annually with mammography beginning at age 40.
Screening mammography results in a 15 percent decrease in the number of breast cancer deaths in women between ages 40 and 49. I can picture the faces of women in their 40s who I have helped diagnose breast cancer based on their screening mammogram alone, and I know that their lives were worth saving.
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Having a family history of breast cancer might increase a person's risk of developing the disease. This is true particularly if the family member with breast cancer is a first-degree relative (sister, mother or daughter) diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause, is a known carrier of the breast cancer gene or is a man (yes, men can get breast cancer, too).
If this is the case for you, talk to your doctor and consider genetic counseling to determine your individual risk. However, the majority of breast cancers, between 70 and 80 percent, develop in women who have no known risk factors. Thus, there is the importance of screening all women ages 40 and older, not just those who are at increased risk.
In October 2009, Yampa Valley Medical Center purchased a digital mammography unit thanks to generous donations from our community and extensive fundraising efforts. This particular advancement in technology makes a striking difference for patients and doctors.
The digital technology allows for better penetration of breast tissue, making it easier to see a developing cancer, particularly in pre- and peri-menopausal women, women with dense breasts (a certain type of tissue that can obscure cancer) and women younger than 50.
For the radiologist interpreting the images, digital mammography is a phenomenal improvement. We now are able to manipulate the images with a click of the mouse — making them darker or lighter, magnifying certain areas and adjusting the contrast to bring out subtle differences in breast tissue.
An additional benefit is the quicker speed of digital imaging — this means less time in uncomfortable (but absolutely necessary) positions and less overall time spent for a mammography appointment.
Last but certainly not least, digital mammography uses a lower radiation dose compared to film mammography. There are so many reasons to sing the praises of our top-of-the-line equipment. If you are a woman age 40 or older, please get your mammogram once a year. Do it for your family. Do it for your life.
Malaika Thompson, M.D. is a radiologist at Yampa Valley Medical Center with subspecialty training in women's imaging.