The race for early breast cancer detection

Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Prevention's guest blogger for October, on how her organization is pushing for early detection:

At Susan G. Komen, we believe women should have access to the early detection screening tools that may save their lives. In most cases when we talk about early detection screening tools, we are referring to access to a screening mammogram. Yet for women with dense breasts-that is, breasts that have a higher level of tissue compared to fat-traditional mammography alone may not be effective in detecting tumors. This is because tissues and tumors both show up as white on a mammogram, and when you have a lot of dense breast tissue, an abnormality can be hard to spot, even to trained eyes.

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Dense breasts are fairly typical in premenopausal women. If you have dense breasts--and one-third or more of women over age 40 do--pay attention. More than 50 studies have been published highlighting that women with very dense breasts are 4 to 5 times more likely to get breast cancer than women with low breast density.

So what needs to be done about this? First, Komen's position is that it should be regular practice for doctors to inform women of their breast density if their mammogram shows they have dense breasts, and to educate them about what it means for their breast cancer risk.

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Second, knowledge is only power if you can do something about it. That's why it is important that doctors discuss with their patients with dense breasts what additional screening tools might be appropriate for them. If they both agree to do additional screening, such as an ultrasound, MRI or some other tool as the technology develops, insurance companies should cover it, which is not always the case right now.

We must develop more specific and sensitive early detection tools, and Komen is taking leadership in this area: We've invested more than $40 million in early detection research focusing on innovation, such as:

  1. Developing new imaging technologies that provide enhanced, three-dimensional images and are more comfortable
  2. Exploring whether genetic codes (biomarkers) in tissue or fluid can be used to create screening tests
  3. Discovering ways to determine whether a benign tumor will progress into cancer or resolve itself
  4. Understanding how issues such as breast density impact the effectiveness of different screening technologies
  5. Identifying ways to detect aggressive subtypes, such as inflammatory breast cancer and triple negative breast cancer

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