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Ultrasounds approved for breast cancer exams

April 11, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Forty percent of women have dense breast tissue. A mammogram may not be sensitive enough to detect breast cancer early. That's why the Food and Drug Administration just approved a second type of screening: Ultrasounds.

Wednesday, an FDA advisory panel voted unanimously to endorse the use of a new screening tool for breast cancer. The automated breast ultrasound system should be used in addition to mammograms for women with dense breasts. The technology can help women take control of their health.

Melanie Lasher, 36, of Santa Clarita gets routine regular checkups after a mammogram turned up something suspicious. The day she found out, her mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I get a call that same day, 'There's something they saw on your mammogram. You need to be retested, maybe a biopsy, we're not sure what it is,'" said Melanie.

Melanie's mom and grandmother both died from breast cancer. Doctors wanted to do surgery right away. But Dr. Deanna Attai with the Center for Breast Care at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center suggested she do something else first. It gave Melanie relief.

"She did not need a biopsy, she did not need surgery, and we're putting her on the path of close surveillance and follow-up," said Attai.

Dr. Attai suggested Melanie undergo an automated whole breast ultrasound exam.

"In my opinion right now, automated whole breast ultrasound makes the most sense in terms of the least risk and the most cost-effective study," said Attai.

The results of the handheld ultrasound device depend on how thorough and experienced the sonographer is, but the automated whole breast ultrasound is completely different.

"The ultrasound transducer is mounted on a mechanical arm, and it very systematically scans the entire breast," said Attai. "You're less likely to miss things."

The automated ultrasound is meant to be a follow-up test. It's not a replacement for a mammogram.

Forty percent of American women have dense breast tissue. The first step is to find out if you're one of them.

"Dense breast is not the same as lumpy breast, and it's something that you can only tell by either looking at your mammograms or having your reports reviewed," said Attai.

Having this new tool makes Melanie feel like she's in control.

"And I'm keeping an eye on something that could progressively turn into something, so the ultrasounds actually are the only thing that gives me peace of mind," said Melanie.

The ultrasound device studied is called the automated breast ultrasound system. Dr. Attai says there are other types, so you should ask your doctor.

Several states have passed laws requiring women getting mammograms to be informed if they have dense breasts. California is working on new legislation to do the same.

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