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Study to improve dense breast tissue detection

January 4, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Mammograms are still the gold standard when it comes to detecting breast cancer. But a certain things like dense breast tissue can make reading a mammogram more challenging. That's because tumors in dense tissue can be harder to find. Doctors are developing new ways to help women and doctors find breast cancer earlier.

Ten percent of American women have dense breast tissue. A recent study by the National Cancer Institute shows those with dense breasts were no more likely to die than patients whose tissue wasn't as dense, but dense tissue has been associated with a four- to six-fold increase in a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, partly because tumors in dense tissue can be harder to spot with a mammogram.

"Mammography is the most effective tool that we have for detecting early breast cancer," said Dr. Jennifer Harvey, radiology professor and director of breast imaging at the University of Virginia. "The way that we measure breast density is not very good."

Harvey is a breast-imaging expert. She says there currently is no easy way to measure breast density. So she's developing something to help women better understand their cancer risk.

"Our goal in this study is that we are going to include breast density into a risk model," said Harvey. "It will be: Here is your result and here is what your risk of breast cancer is."

The doctor believes the personalized model could help women determine how often they should get mammograms, instead of relying on age-based recommendations.

The first phase of Harvey's risk-model study is being funded by a $5.5 million government grant. It will continue to be developed over the next three years. If successful the model could be available for widespread use within six years.