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Emerging Areas in Early Detection



Breast Imaging Methods
Fact Sheet


Research Fast Facts: Early Detection
Fact Sheet

Many tools for the early detection of breast cancer are under study. Some tools are already used in 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:

More research is needed on all of 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.  

If you are interested in joining a clinical trial studying one of these screening methods, talk to your health care provider. 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.  

Breast tomosynthesis (3D digital mammography)

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. A breast tomosynthesis machine provides both a regular 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 mammogram stays in place. Because more X-rays are taken, breast tomosynthesis gives a slightly higher dose of radiation than mammography (this higher dose is still within FDA guidelines) [81].

Some studies have suggested screening with digital mammography plus breast tomosynthesis may find more breast cancers than digital mammography alone [78-80].

Digital mammography in combination with breast tomosynthesis is starting to be used in clinical practice. At this time, it is not widely available.  

Nuclear medicine imaging of the breast (molecular breast imaging)

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 and these cancer cells can be imaged with a special camera. Nuclear medicine breast imaging is being studied in combination with mammography screening for women with dense breasts [82].  

Two types of nuclear medicine imaging techniques are:

  • Breast-specific gamma imaging (BSGI). The radioactive agents used in BSGI emit gamma rays that are tracked by a special camera. 
  • Positron emission mammography (PEM). The radioactive agents used in PEM are sugars. PEM uses positron emission tomography (PET), a test that shows how much sugar is consumed by cells, along with a special camera to image cells. Cancer cells tend to consume more sugar than normal cells and this can help identify tumors. PET does not have the special camera needed for PEM, so PEM cannot be done on a regular PET scan machine. PET alone cannot give a detailed enough image to find early stage breast cancers [83].

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 a dose from mammography [84]. 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. Although breast cancer can cause abnormal heat patterns, many benign conditions also cause abnormal heat patterns. Thermography cannot distinguish between benign and cancerous patterns [85]. And, because thermography measures heat at the surface of the breast, it is not good at finding cancers deeper within the breast tissue.  

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 [86-87]. 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 [87]. To read the full alert, visit the FDA website.

 Our commitment to research 

At Susan G. Komen®, we are committed to ending breast cancer forever by energizing science to find the cures and ensuring quality care for all people, everywhere. 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. 

Susan G. Komen® research spotlight

Komen funds research looking at new methods of early detection. One new method is ultrasound tomography, a tool that uses ultrasound technology. Ultrasound tomography may give information on breast density by measuring the speed that sound waves travel through the breast [88].  

Learn about the latest research on ultrasound tomography that Komen is funding in our newest Stories of Discovery.  

Updated 03/24/14

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