Over the years, research has revealed that breast cancer is not only one of the most common varieties of cancer among women, but it is also one of the leading causes of cancer-related death in women across the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, 12 percent of American women will develop invasive breast cancer sometime during their lives. With nearly 247,000 new cases projected to be diagnosed in 2016 alone, the need for innovative early screening techniques is higher than ever.
As such, numerous researchers have leveraged recent technology to create highly effective methods of cancer detection, ranging from imaging devices to wearables. Here are five such screening methods that could help save lives:
Mammograms with MRI
For years, mammograms have been the standard breast cancer screening method, but some medical specialists endorse the use of additional screening. While traditional mammograms can detect the presence of some early-stage cancers, they can also miss others altogether when patients have denser breast tissue. This is where the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can fill the gap in screening needs.
A new addition to the array of breast cancer detection methods, MRI utilizes powerful, highly sensitive magnets to gather images of the breast tissue. During the process, patients typically undergo an initial MRI before they receive an injection of a special dye that helps reveal breast lesions more easily. An additional scan then takes images of the dyed tissue and can easily locate both benign and malignant masses.
MRIs are particularly beneficial to those who received a recent diagnosis and need further screening to determine the size of lesions. In addition, the American Cancer Society recommends this type of imaging for those who have a higher risk of developing breast cancer due to certain factors, including BRCA1 or 2 gene mutations and Cowden syndrome.
Oral Imaging Pill
Even after mammograms detect the presence of breast cancer, many patients must undergo supplemental screening to determine whether the growths are cancerous or benign. In the past, biopsies have been the standard method of testing masses, but they are invasive and not always 100% accurate, especially with atypical growths. A team of researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a potential alternative in the form of an oral imaging pill. When ingested, the pill releases an agent that is specifically designed to attach to tumor blood vessels and cells that are typically found in cancerous tissue.
Unlike other screening methods, the imaging pill does not require the use of needles or radiation. Instead, doctors simply shine a near-infrared light on the affected breast tissue, which fluoresces due to the agents in the pill. This wavelength only enables doctors to see tumors that are less than two centimeters below the surface of the skin, but adding ultrasound can help detect cancers that lie deeper within the tissue. While still in the early trial phase, the oral imaging pill could one day offer an easier and less expensive method of cancer monitoring.
Healthcare professionals first explored computed tomography (CT) as a breast cancer detection method nearly five decades ago. However, they quickly realized that this technique required high amounts of radiation to be effective, so they discontinued the use of the technology.
CT scanners may begin to make a comeback as a means of detecting breast cancer, thanks to the efforts of radiology professor John M. Boone of the University of California, Davis. He developed a unique CT scanner that is not only dedicated to scanning for breast cancer, but also serves as a safer alternative to other detection methods. Boone’s CT scanner uses less radiation than standard mammograms while offering more comfort, and it is potentially more effective. Though the device cannot scan for breast microcalcifications that sometimes form in some cancer patients, the addition of mammography can fulfill this aspect of screening.
Digital Breast Tomosynthesis (DBT)
In a recent study, researchers from Lund University in Malmö, Sweden, aimed to compare the effectiveness of mammograms with the DBT screening method. A type of 3D imaging, this method involves taking X-rays from numerous angles around the breast, which enables doctors to create multi-dimensional images of the tissue within. After consulting with experienced breast radiologists, the Lund University researchers concluded that DBT screening was able to detect 67 tumors, compared to the 47 found by mammograms. Furthermore, DBT screening detected 21 cancers that mammograms had failed to notice.
While offering a higher rate of cancer detection, DBT uses less radiation than mammograms and causes less discomfort during the testing process. The test is not without shortcomings, particularly in the rate of diagnosis recall. However, the researchers hope that, with proper DBT training and additional research, this method of screening could see widespread use within the next decade.
Recent innovations in technology have introduced a wide array of wearables that help people monitor their health by tracking heart rate, sleep quality, and other useful information. One such addition to this group of smart devices is a bra that may provide an alternative to the monthly self-breast exam. Called the iTBra, it was tested with more than 200 patients, and its readings correlated with a verified clinical breast cancer diagnosis in 87% of cases.
The iTBra monitors changes in circadian temperature within a patient’s breast cells. In this way, the device is able to recognize the difference between normal cells and potentially cancerous cells. When synched with the wearer’s smartphone, the iTBra can relay monthly test results to her physician. Discreetly fitting beneath the wearer’s clothing, iTBra does not use radiation, nor does it cause discomfort.