3D Mammograms Find Hidden Cancer Earlier


A new kind of mammogram is becoming available to women across the country. It’s called tomosynthesis (tomo for short) or 3D mammography. Since you may soon have to choose between 2D and 3D, here’s the breakdown of what tomo is and how it’s different.

Defining Tomo

If you choose tomosynthesis, you won’t really notice any difference. You still go through the dreaded squeeze but, in addition to the regular equipment, there is a mechanical arm on top of the machine that would sweep in a 15-degree arc over you breast. This arm is taking 15 different images that are later turned into a 3D scan on your doctor’s computer.

Why It Might Be Better

Traditional mammograms look a bit like X-rays. The fat in the breast looks dark and everything else — whether fluid or a mass — is light. Since traditional mammograms take an image from the outside in, doctors have to search through layers of dark and light for any suspicious spots. Dr. Linda Greer, from John C. Lincoln Hospital, says finding a mass in a traditional mammogram is like “looking for a cotton ball in a glass of milk.” With tomo, doctors can flip through images of the breast that show it in slices, therefore allowing them to better differentiate between different layers.

The Stats

At John C. Lincoln Hospital, researchers compared data from one year after they started using tomo to one year pre-tomo and found a shocking difference. Greer’s personal recall rate went down 42 percent. That means she was calling back 42 percent fewer patients for extra review (including mammograms and ultrasound). In the whole practice, breast cancer diagnoses increased over 50 percent. “You know that there’s not 50 percent more cancers all of the sudden, it’s just that we’re finding 50 percent more than we used to, which is amazing to me,” says Greer.

Teri Williams, a communications specialist for Kingman Regional Medical Center, was tasked with educating the public about tomo when they began using it in 2011. A year later, Williams underwent tomo at her own yearly exam. “The first time I had a mammogram with this technology, they found cancer,” says Williams, “And they probably wouldn’t have found it yet with a traditional 2D mammogram because I have dense breast tissue.” Williams’ cancer was found early. She had a lumpectomy and radiation to rid her of the cancer and she describes her treatment as less traumatic than some dentist appointments.

Concerns About Tomo

Since tomo is done in addition to traditional mammography, it roughly doubles the amount of radiation to which women are exposed. This is a considerable increase but this exposure is less than what you’d get during a plane flight and similar to film mammograms. If you are still concerned about it, you may not have to worry for long. Greer and her colleagues are already working with tomo’s successor, called C-View. This type of mammogram uses only tomo to create a detailed 2D image with radiation exposure similar to that from traditional mammograms.

Currently, tomo is available in 49 states and 50 countries. Some locations provide it at no additional costs, but the technology is expensive, so many places charge extra. Greer, who sees costs savings in the reduction in recalls and late detections, is still a staunch supporter. “I think it’s going to be the way of the world,” she says, “I think people are just going to have to get used to it and then they’ll jump on board.”