Many tools for the early detection of breast cancer are under study. Some tools are already used in breast cancer diagnosis and staging and are widely available. These tools have been studied in the early detection setting more than others and include:
Other tools under study for the early detection of breast cancer include breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography) and nuclear medicine imaging of the breast (molecular breast imaging). Breast-specific gamma imaging (BSGI) and positron emission mammography (PEM) are types of nuclear medicine imaging. These and other tools under study are discussed below.
More research is needed on these tools to know whether they may play a role in breast cancer screening for all women or certain groups of women at higher risk.
Special imaging machines can take multiple, standard two-dimensional (2D) digital mammograms. Computer software combines the 2D X-ray images into a three-dimensional (3D) image (called breast tomosynthesis). Radiologists must have special training to read these 3D images.
Breast tomosynthesis is not a substitute for 2D mammography. It is done in combination with 2D mammography.
A breast tomosynthesis machine provides both a standard 2D digital mammogram and an enhanced 3D image based on the 2D images. All of the X-rays are taken on the same machine, so a woman getting breast tomosynthesis in combination with a standard mammogram stays in one place while all of the images are taken.
Because more X-rays are taken, breast tomosynthesis gives about twice the dose of radiation than mammography (this higher dose is still within FDA guidelines) [15,60].
Although some studies have suggested that 2D mammography plus breast tomosynthesis may find a few more breast cancers than 2D mammography alone, it is still not clear whether the combination of 2D mammography plus breast tomosynthesis is a better screening tool than 2D mammography alone [61-63].
Although 2D mammography plus breast tomosynthesis is available at some centers, it is still under study and not considered standard of care at this time.
Nuclear medicine breast imaging (you may also hear the term molecular breast imaging) uses short-term radioactive agents that are given through an IV. These agents are absorbed into tissues, including the breast.
Breast cancer cells appear to absorb more of the agents than healthy cells. The cancer cells can then be imaged with a special camera. Nuclear medicine breast imaging is under study for use in breast cancer screening, diagnosis and staging.
A woman getting nuclear medicine breast imaging is positioned in a similar way as with mammography. Each breast is pressed between two plates and the machine takes images.
Two types of nuclear medicine imaging techniques are:
A main concern about the use of BSGI and PEM as breast cancer screening tools is that they give a dose of radiation that is 15 to 20 times higher than the dose from a mammogram . Ways to lower the amount of radiation exposure are under study .
Although still under study, BSGI and PEM are used in clinical practice, but are not widely available.
Thermography uses infrared light to measure temperature differences on the surface of the breast. Breast cancer may cause abnormal heat patterns. However, there is no solid scientific evidence that thermography measures of heat can help find breast cancers .
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 [67-68]. In 2011, the FDA issued an alert warning the public about misleading claims by thermography practitioners and manufacturers on the screening benefits of the tool . To read the full alert, visit the FDA website.
If you are interested in joining a clinical trial studying new screening methods, talk with your health care provider. BreastCancerTrials.org in collaboration with Susan G. Komen offers a custom matching service that can help you find a clinical trial on breast cancer screening.
Learn more about clinical trials.
Our commitment to research
At Susan G. Komen, we are committed to ending breast cancer forever. Our global research grants and scientific programs are essential driving forces for achieving this mission. Many of the world’s leaders in breast cancer research have been supported by Komen’s Research and Scientific Programs – including three Nobel Laureates. Komen’s funding has supported research that has resulted in a better understanding of breast cancer; earlier detection; personalized, less-invasive treatments for what was once a “one-treatment-fits-all” disease; and improved survival rates. Learn more about the exciting research we are funding.
Komen funds research looking at new methods of early detection. One new method is breast ultrasound tomography, a tool that uses ultrasound technology. Breast ultrasound tomography may give information on breast density by measuring the speed that sound waves travel through the breast .
Learn about the latest research on breast ultrasound tomography and other topics that Komen is funding in our Stories of Discovery.
Facts for Life: Breast Imaging Methods
Research Fast Facts: Early Detection
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