However, the ACS also notes that the rate of deaths caused by breast cancer has been declining since the late 80s, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. The trend is attributed to increased awareness, improved treatments and earlier detection through screening.
Mammograms, which were introduced in the 70s and have transitioned from film to digital, are still the only screening tool approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
No technology is perfect, and mammograms can miss some breast cancer cases. Since research has found that early detection significantly enhances the success of breast cancer treatment, the healthcare industry is in constant pursuit of better ways to see inside the breast.
Enter 3D mammography. Also called breast tomosynthesis, this relatively new breast imaging technology was approved for use in combination with conventional 2D mammography by the FDA in 2011.
“Breast tomosynthesis allows us to see the inside of the breast from many different angles, and it also gives us the ability to view breast tissue layer by layer, in 1 millimeter increments, or slices,” says, Dr. Maria Piraner, breast imager (radiologist) for the Center for Breast Care at Emory Johns Creek Hospital.
During a 3D mammogram, the X-ray arm of the mammography machine passes over the breast in a slight arc, taking numerous low-dose images at multiple angles. A computer software program then combines those images into a 3D rendering of the entire breast. For patients who have had previous mammograms, the procedure is nearly identical to conventional mammograms, except each compression takes about 4 seconds longer.
3D mammography does not replace conventional 2D mammography; rather, the two procedures are done in combination on the same machine. The addition of the 3D component can help reduce the chance that a patient will need to be called back for additional images. Since conventional 2D mammograms produce single, flat images of the breast, a cancer can sometimes hide in the overlapping tissue, or overlapping tissue can give the appearance of an abnormality that isn’t there.
While women 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year for as long as they are healthy, the choice to add 3D to their conventional 2D mammogram depends on personal factors, such as:
- Family history of breast cancer
- Having a high risk factor for breast cancer
- Frequency of call backs on previous mammograms
- Having dense breast tissue
Dr. Piraner says the advantages of the combination 2D/3D mammogram are:
- Fewer patients need to be called back for additional images
- Allows radiologists to see cancers when they are smaller and less complicated to treat
- Is particularly useful for patients with dense breast tissue
Download our FAQ sheet, “3D Mammography and You” for more information.