Digital mammography could spot cancer risk

March 10, 2009 5:55:10 PM PDT
Regular yearly mammograms save countless women by spotting breast cancer early, but now, a new study done here in the Bay Area suggests those same tests could provide an even earlier warning.

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All mammograms can spot abnormal growths, but digital mammography provides an additional reading of breast density, that doesn't always get as much attention. Researchers believe that information can help doctors more accurately determine a woman's risk of cancer.

44-year-old Katie is about to undergo digital mammography, an exam she has every year. follow up exam to check out some abnormalities that turned up on her yearly mammogram and says she always pays close attention to the information.

"I want to know everything and take care of it right now. I don't scrimp on exams, if there was anything new that they were maybe not telling me, I'd want to know," said Katie, a patent.

And now, researchers at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco believe there could be a way to make that yearly appointment even more valuable.

Dr. Steven Cummings and his team compiled data from several studies. Their meta-analysis and found that the density of the breast, shown in a typical digital mammogram, can be a predictor of future cancer risk.

"A woman who's at high risk can be identified on the basis of her risk factors like family history and whether she's had a breast biopsy in the past, for example, and also by adding a measure of breast density, because the higher the density, the higher the risk," said Steven Cummings, M.D., from the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute.

He says research is still ongoing, to determine why women with denser, less fatty breast tissue have higher rates of cancer. But when his team combined the density measurement with the other risk factors such as diet and exercise, they were able to more accurately predict who would develop cancer. Dr. Cummings believes some of those women, could eventually be treated before cancer develops, to lower their risk.

"There are essentially three things a woman at high risk can do. One is to change some of the things about her lifestyle: lose weight, increase physical activity, and then consider medications that are known to reduce your risk by at least 50 percent," said Cummings.

The study focused on postmenopausal women, who have a higher incidence of breast cancer, but researchers believe the risk scale could eventually be applied to younger women like Katie.

"We're finding breast cancer, but we don't want to find it, we want to prevent it," said Cummings.

Dr. Cummings says work is also underway on new software programs, to interpret information generated by digital mammography.

The program would combine that, with the patient's personal data, to give patient's a more accurate predictor of their risk for breast cancer.

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