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3-D Mammograms Could Save Your Life

A new 3-D mammogram offers an encouraging picture for earlier detection of breast cancer 

Mary Sisk knows history.

She and her husband and grown son operate their own construction restoration firm in Holden, Mo. They work on historic buildings in Missouri and Kansas, making them whole again, keeping them alive. For example, they restored the Bates County Courthouse, pictured here, in Butler, Mo.

She also knows her family’s history: eight brothers and sisters, half of them hit with cancer. One brother did not survive the disease.

So when she went to Saint Luke’s East Hospital in Lee’s Summit in February to get her yearly mammogram and they asked her if she’d like traditional or 3-D mammography, she knew which one she would choose.

“Once they explained it to me, I definitely wanted to go with 3-D,” said Sisk, 52. “It’s a way to detect cancer early on.”

The Avatar of Imagery

Sisk is one of a growing number of mammography patients at Saint Luke’s East Hospital who are opting for this highly precise way for radiologists to read the images of the breast and detect cancer.

Saint Luke’s is the first medical facility in Kansas City, as well as Missouri, to offer this new technology. The medical name for a 3-D mammogram is tomosynthesis. It’s the difference between watching the film Avatar without 3-D glasses and with them. Or looking at a closed book and then opening it and being able to turn every page. Tomosynthesis marks a new and far more readable chapter in mammograms.

'D' for Detection

A traditional mammogram shows the breast at two different angles. A 3-D mammogram reveals approximately 100 images of each breast on average, or 200 total images for both breasts. “Instead of viewing the complexity of the breast in one flat image, we can see the breast tissue one millimeter at a time,” said Ruby Meierotto, M.D., dedicated breast radiologist at Saint Luke’s. “Fine details are less obscured by overlapping breast tissue.”

Dr. Meierotto and the other radiologists can see more, see more clearly, and see evidence of cancer that might have been hidden without the ability to look beneath the overlapping tissue.

16 Potentially Life-Saving Seconds

From the patient’s perspective, getting a 3-D mammogram is no different from the traditional one. Sisk would not have known she was standing in front of a 3-D machine if the Saint Luke’s staff had not asked her which type of mammogram she’d like.

“For any patient undergoing a screening mammogram, we now ask that question as a matter of course,” said Shannon Philipsheck, radiology manager at Saint Luke’s East Hospital. “The 3-D adds just 16 seconds of additional exposure, well within FDA limits, for a whole lot more data.”

Inside the 3-D unit is a tube that moves in an arc around the breast, turning 15 degrees to the left and right, digitally capturing section after section.

(The “tomo” in tomosynthesis means section.) “When my technician showed me the images on the screen, I could see the different angles,” said Sisk. “The image was much more defined.”

It’s that ability to see those fine details more clearly that makes 3-D a potential life-saver. One in eight American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection is key.

“Those extra 16 seconds have resulted in a 16 percent increase in breast-cancer detection rates,” said Dr. Meierotto.

Sisk felt more confident, knowing that her radiologist had so much more information to read. Sisk got a call the next day with her results. There were no signs of cancer. She now plans to have annual 3-D mammograms.

In her restoration work, Sisk can point to numerous buildings she’s helped save. Now she sees an opportunity to save something even more precious, by recommending the 3-D mammography to both of her sisters who have battled cancer.

“The earlier doctors detect breast cancer, the more chance of saving lives,” said Sisk. Definitely an angle worth pursuing. 

Learn more about 3-D mammograms.