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Digital technology:

Advanced breast cancer screening comes of age

Betty Kasson is a breast cancer survivor, and she credits self-examination and technological advances with saving her life. So she didn’t hesitate when enlisted to join an effort to bring the latest diagnostic technology to the Peninsula.

Kasson and a committee of seven other women were at the heart of a campaign that has equipped Community Hospital’s Breast Care Center with the newest generation of breast cancer screening and diagnostic technology, able to detect smaller tumors sooner.

The Breast Care Center is maintaining its status among advanced programs by moving into the digital age with more than $5 million invested in digital mammography, digital ultrasound technology, and other pieces of the highest-quality and most-current equipment and software for the detection and diagnosis of breast cancer.

"We are dealing with the same kind of advancement in technology everyone recognizes as they get rid of their old film cameras," says Dr. Susan Roux, medical director of the Breast Care Center. "Pictures once shot on film are now done with digital cameras, whose images come out instantly on a screen and are stored on memory cards. With digital mammography, the technologist sees the image on a computer monitor and has immediate feedback on how well a patient is positioned and whether she moved or took a breath during the exposure, which would result in a blurred image.

"If the image is sharp, we can move on to the next one. If it’s not, we can take it again, without having to take the film into a darkroom and waiting to see if the image developed on film is good enough."

Efficiency is part of the advantage of digital mammography. Patients get in and out of an appointment faster, which means less waiting time, less inconvenience, and faster results. Plus, the Breast Care Center is able to accommodate more patients. Clarity is an even more critical advantage.

"Digital technology offers fine-tuning of the image, which improves resolution, giving us sharper pictures," says Roux. "This is especially important for ladies whose mammograms reveal that their tissue is dense. Younger women have higher hormone levels so they have more dense tissue, which is harder to see through. The older we get, the less we need this dense tissue, so it becomes more fatty and is actually easier to read.

"If we just compare mammograms to the sky, a clear sky is what we find in older ladies, whereas we get ‘cloud cover’ in younger women. Those ‘clouds’ can hide breast changes, which might represent a developing cancer. It is much more difficult to search through dense tissue with traditional film mammography. Digital mammography does a better job at imaging that dense tissue, giving us a better chance of finding a cancer that might be there."

Roux anticipates that at least 40 percent of women whose traditional mammograms are difficult to read will have sharper, more easily read mammograms with the new digital technology.

In addition to the new digital mammography machines, the Breast Care Center has acquired a digitizer to convert existing film mammograms to digital images. This means older images can be more easily compared to new images, supporting a faster and more accurate diagnosis.

"It is so important for women to have the advantage of the latest and best technology," Roux says. "The Breast Care Center opened in 2002. Just as we upgrade our home computers after five years or so, it was time for change at the center. Digital mammographic technology is extraordinary, and we wanted to make it available to our community. Buying new, advanced ultrasound machines also added to the state-of-the-art toolbox.

"Our whole emphasis," she says, "is early detection with the best possible tools. Only one in five women diagnosed with breast cancer dies from it. The other four are cured. Our grandmothers felt a lump and, through fear or ignorance, covered it up for a long time. Today, women are more proactive, in general, about their health — eating right, exercising, keeping their cholesterol down, getting screening mammograms. With our cutting-edge diagnostic tools and women’s awareness, survival from breast cancer is expected to continue improving."