The 20th century saw massive strides in medical technology, and it continues today at an exponential rate. Through x-ray and MRI scan technology it’s now easier than ever to detect cancer in patients in its early stages. It was Albert Salomon, a German surgeon, who in 1913 developed a method of visualizing tumors within the breast via radiography. From that point on, scientists, doctors, and radiologists worked hard to improve Salomon’s idea to get more accurate, clearer images of the breast tissue of both men and women. By the mid- 1960s, deaths causes by breast cancer had been reduced by one-third, largely as a result of improving mammography technology.
The Future of Mammography
Traditional mammograms are effective but perhaps not the most comfortable procedure. Typically, the patient will have their breasts held firmly in place and compressed while the x-ray can take pictures of the tissue. From Salomon’s early envisioning of the x-ray mammogram, radiography imaging was the primary and most effective method of checking for breast cancer up until 2011. In 2011, 3D mammography, also known as tomosynthesis, began proper development and use. But how does it work, and what is meant by “3D?”
3D mammograms essentially combine the technology of the traditional x-ray mammogram with the slightly newer MRI technology used for head scans and full body scans. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It uses a powerful magnetic field connected to a computer to capture detailed internal images of the targeted body parts. Invented in 1971 by Paul C. Lauterbur, MRI scans have since become a staple in cancer detection, saving many lives.
The Advantage of 3D Mammograms
By combining radiology with MRI scanning, tomosynthesis allows for even more detailed images of the patient’s breast tissue. This is because 3D mammograms consist of images of several layers of the breast tissue, like a topographical map of sorts, as opposed to the single 2D image of the past. With this added depth, doctors can obtain a clearer understanding of the size, nature, and location of any given spot or tumor found in the breast.
3D mammograms are also more comfortable than traditional 2D mammograms which require breast compression. While today 3D mammography is combined with traditional 2D mammography, the 3D portion is over very quickly and requires no further physical contact. In the future it’s likely tomosynthesis will be the primary and perhaps only necessary method for detecting breast cancer in its early stages.
Most importantly, tomosynthesis in concert with 2D mammography has been proven to be effective in detecting more cases of breast cancer than 2D mammography alone. And because these tests are more accurate, there are fewer false positives and callbacks to patients, which means much more peace of mind for all patients who receive these exams.
When examining the history of medical technology and mammography in particular, it’s reassuring to note how methods improve exponentially over time. It seems we might not be far away from reducing the amount of invasive, uncomfortable procedures, replacing them with more comfortable and also more accurate methods. For now, 3D mammography is a bold step in the right direction for saving more lives and doing it without harm.