The technologies still are experimental. But the research is being watched closely because the need is so great. Half of women younger than 50 and a third of women over 50 are estimated to have dense breasts. In addition to a harder time viewing any brewing tumors, women with dense breasts have a higher risk of getting breast cancer, too. Only a mammogram can tell if your breasts are made up more of dense or easier-to-examine fatty tissue. But if a doctor warns that you have dense breasts, there's little good advice on how to get a better cancer check today. Mammograms are X-ray exams that hunt denser spots in normal breast tissue, shadows that might signal a tumor.
Now comes the new technologies: Mammograms are two-dimensional, flat pictures of a surface that's simply not flat. When technicians literally smush women's breasts into the mammography unit, they're trying to spread the tissue out so less is hidden from the X-ray. "Stereo mammograms" allow radiologists to see those X-ray images in 3-D, so that a small spot on the bottom might not be hidden by normal tissue laying over it.
In a soon-to-be-published study, Emory radiologists gave nearly 1,500 women at increased risk of breast cancer both a mammogram and a stereo mammogram. Mayo just finished a study of 2,000 women comparing the gamma-camera technique to standard mammograms, and Hruska says additional government-funded studies at other hospitals will begin later this year.