Thanks to the 25-year-old breast cancer awareness movement, the American public is well-versed in the value of breast cancer early detection.
Until recently, these three major messages have been played continuously:
1) Mammography every year starting at age 40 (but earlier for women with a family history of breast cancer at a young age)
2) Regular breast examination by your doctor
3) Breast self-examination (see breastcancer.org for tips).
But no test or combination of tests is perfect.
Even with these three tools, some breast cancers escape detection. Depending on the study, between 10 and 15 percent of breast cancers can be missed even when all three tests are done.
While 15 percent or less might seem like a small risk, we're not talking just numbers here. We're talking about real people: your mother, yourself, your daughter, your neighbor, your friend.
At just 33 years old, Janelle Whitehead is a living example of the shortcomings of these detection methods.
"I can't believe I was diagnosed with breast cancer that had already spread to the lymph nodes," she said. "I did everything right -- got my mammogram every single year, went to my doctor regularly, and felt myself up in the shower. Why wasn't it found earlier?"
Clearly we need something better. Until the breast cancer cure arrives, we need more tools to help us detect all breast cancers as early as possible when they are most treatable.
The March 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that looked at the ability of magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI) to detect breast cancer. MRIs use magnetic fields to highlight different kinds of tissues, distinguishing normal from abnormal.
In this case, women who were already diagnosed with cancer in one breast were screened with MRI on the other breast. So, for example, a woman diagnosed with right-sided breast cancer in this study would be screened with an MRI to determine whether there was breast cancer in her left breast (see breastcancer.org for more).
It is already known that women diagnosed with one breast cancer are at higher risk of developing another breast cancer -- and these woman want early detection for ANY cancer diagnosed -- on both sides.
This study showed that in nearly 1,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer on one breast, an MRI scan was able to detect breast cancer in 3 percent (30 of 969) of women on the other breast that was missed by mammography and clinical examination.
But MRI is a supersensitive test that can lead to many false alarms. Of the 121 women who had an MRI scan "abnormality," 30 proved to have cancer -- that's about 25 percent. This means that about 75 percent of the women had to be told that the MRI "abnormality" was not cancer.
Upon any diagnosis of breast cancer, it's important to carefully evaluate both breasts.
There is a tendency for you and your doctor to focus only on the one breast that first caught your attention and, as a result, neglect to pay close attention to the other breast. But knowing what's happening in both breasts -- as well as around the whole body -- helps you determine the best treatment strategy, giving you your best shot at getting rid of the cancer and staying cancer-free. Early detection may also help you avoid some of the heavy duty treatments like chemotherapy.