MADISON, Wis. - Doctors have used X-rays to detect breast cancer for more than half a century. In that time many advancements have been made, and so have the rules for screenings. Sticking to those guidelines can really be the difference between life and death
A mom with a busy career as an administrator at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a newfound love of fitness, Staci Francis never imagined she'd have to fit cancer into her busy life.
“No one in my family has breast cancer, so it wasn't anything that was thinking of,” Francis said.
But at 44 years old during a routine mammogram screening, doctors found two lumps in her breast.
“’How could this happen to me? I'm healthy,” Francis thought. “To have that diagnosis was shocking.”
It was devastating news but the cancer was detected early enough to be entirely removed.
“It was back towards the very back of my breast, which would never been caught like on a self-exam,” she said.
Dr. Lee Wilke, director of the UW Health Breast Center treated Francis.
“Mammograms are still our best test for finding something early,” Wilke said.
She said every woman at some point should start getting screened but when depends on the person.
“If we could identify the women that need them every year, versus the women that need them every three years, versus the women that need to start in their 30s or those that can wait to their 50s, that’s the perfect world,” she said.
We don't live in a perfect world yet. So for now Wilke said you should talk to your doctor about the option of a screening mammogram at age 40. At age 45 you should begin getting screened yearly up until age 55, after that you should go every one to two years.
“It’s a discussion with your primary care physician,” Wilke said. “If you have many family members with breast cancer, we'd want you to start your mammograms earlier.”
As the guidelines evolve, so does the technology. Dr. Mai Elezaby, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is using a revolutionary new screening tool known as breast tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography. She said it’s far superior than the 2D image produced in a traditional mammography.
“It does improve the way that we can screen and diagnose breast cancer,” Elezaby said. “Instead of looking at one flat image, we are looking at multiple very thin sections through the breast tissue so we can see details better and we can almost see through the entirety of the breast ."
Elezaby said the 3D images lead to earlier and more precise detection and will become the new normal in diagnostic imaging.
“Talking to our colleagues across the state, a lot of the facilities either have it or are bringing it on board,” Elezaby said.
But any mammogram will help in the fight against cancer. A year after her battle, Francis is healthy, and is asking more women to go get routine mammograms.
“My outcome would've been greatly different than what it is now,” she said. “I can't say enough for people to go in and get that mammogram once a year, it's so worth it.”
As for self-breast exams go, doctors said rather than sticking to a schedule and doing a monthly check, it's more about being breast aware. Doctors said your body is always changing, but if you notice any major differences, that's when you should book an appointment.