New breast imaging shows promise, but mammograms still important, doctor says

Advancements in breast imaging may have helped discover early stages of breast cancer, but yearly mammograms are still the gold standard for detection of the disease, a New York surgeon told a crowd gathered at Town Hall Thursday.

At an event to kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Susan Boolbol, chief of breast surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center and a member of the Greenwich-based Breast Cancer Alliance's medical advisory board, talked about new technologies, such as breast-specific gamma imaging, that show promise.

In a study recently conducted at Beth Israel of 82 women who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer, BSGI identified the cancer in 77 cases, or 94 percent of the time. Seven of those patients had additional areas of cancer picked up with the exam, which wouldn't have been detected with a mammogram, Boolbol said.

"Unfortunately, those are the women who in two years recur with breast cancer and we say, We cannot believe that that breast cancer came back,'" Boolbol said. "Well, we can, because the reality is that breast cancer was there, we just had no way of picking it up. That breast cancer didn't come back. That was there, and it took another two years for the mammogram to pick it up. That's the difference."

With BSGI, patients are injected with a radioactive tracing agent, which is absorbed more by cancerous cells because of their high rate of metabolic activity. Abnormal cells show up as dark dots, "hot spots," on the image. Boolbol compared it to satellite photos that show cities with high energy consumption.

Since July, women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer at Beth Israel and participate in a new study will undergo both BSGI as well as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, so that researchers can compare the two. MRI picks up breast cancer 90 percent to 95 percent of the time, but the false positive rate is at least 15 percent, Boolbol said.

The BSGI is being funded by a private donor -- a woman whose breast cancer was caught with the test -- while the patients' insurance companies are covering the MRI, Boolbol said. There are 45 patients participating so far, and the goal is to have 100 patients.

While the new tests are promising, they are still always compared back to a mammogram, Boolbol said.

Outside the Cone Meeting Room, where Boolbol spoke, a pink flag waved in front of Town Hall. The Breast Cancer Alliance had raised the flag earlier in the morning to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The organization last year raised close to $2 million, which goes toward breast cancer research and breast surgical fellowships, as well as education and providing free or low-cost mammograms to uninsured women.

The flag was a new idea to raise awareness, said Margaret Sinclair, president of the Breast Cancer Alliance.

"It's really just a great in-your-face reminder to get a mammogram and stay on top of your health," Sinclair said.