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Is Progress Being Made in Breast Cancer Prevention?

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Q. Every October I see a lot in the news about breast cancer awareness. Is progress being made in breast cancer prevention?

A. Except for non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer remains the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women. But cancer experts say that women should feel encouraged by the current breakthroughs in breast cancer detection.

According to the American Cancer Society, in recent years researchers have discovered new and better ways to detect and treat breast cancer–and to keep it from coming back. These new developments stem from a vast body of research. Recent advances, along with greater public awareness of the importance of breast exams, have caused a steady decline in breast cancer deaths in women since 1990.

Here’s a roundup of what’s on the horizon in the areas of breast cancer detection. Keep in mind that all these advances are not yet widely available and many may not be appropriate for everyone. Screening decisions should be made by a woman and her doctor, based on her particular health, her personal preferences and her doctor’s clinical judgment.

Improved mammography

Study after study has shown that regular mammograms play a vital role in early cancer detection. Thanks to advances in digital technology, mammography may become an even more valuable tool in the future. Currently, standard mammography captures images on film or digitally on computers. But research centers around the country are now testing 3D digital mammography or tomosynthesis, an extension of digital mammography. Tomosynthesis allows the breast to be viewed as many thin slices, which can be combined into a 3D picture. It may allow doctors to detect smaller lesions or ones that would otherwise be hidden with standard mammograms.

Another way to find cancer

An alternative to using X-rays is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses radio waves and strong magnets to view body tissue.  They can be used as a follow-up after mammography has found cancer in the breast, or to screen women at high risk for breast cancer. More research is needed, however, to find out if MRIs are any better than mammography at finding small breast cancers.

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