Innovative Imaging: How the latest breast cancer screening is saving lives

Updated: Apr. 27, 2017 at 7:34 PM EDT
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(Source: Matt Clegg/WTVM)
(Source: Matt Clegg/WTVM)
(Source: Matt Clegg/WTVM)
(Source: Matt Clegg/WTVM)
(Source: Matt Clegg/WTVM)
(Source: Matt Clegg/WTVM)
(Source: WTVM)
(Source: WTVM)

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - More than 250,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States this year alone and of those cases, more than 40,000 women will die of the disease.

But a diagnosis of cancer does not have to be a death sentence.

Forty-five years ago, breast cancer was the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., but over the years those numbers have continued to fall largely due to better screening technology and improved therapy and St. Francis Hospital in Columbus is helping lead the way.

"With current digital technology, we see things a lot better now with the latest tomography where its multiple slices through different parts of the breast," says Dr. Roland Wong, Diagnostic Radiologist at St. Francis Hospital.

Those so-called "slices" through 3-D mammography, or tomography as it's called, gives doctors a more detailed look allowing them to see abnormalities and potential cancers that years ago may not have been seen.

This technology has only been in use for a few years with the St. Francis Center for Breast Health among the first in the region to offer it.

"An analogy would be going into the forest and trying to find a bird, if you're looking from outside the forest it would be hard to find that bird whereas if you go into the forest and look up and down your chances of finding that bird are better and that's what tomography is. It offers about a 30 to 40 percent increase in cancer detection rate compared to the regular digital mammography," says Dr. Wong.

That 3-D technology pinpointed an abnormality in Newsleader 9's Barbara Gauthier's routine mammogram.

Doctors saw what they describe as calcification, or a calcium build up in Barbara's left breast. Because that can be an indicator of cancer, doctors ordered a whole breast ultrasound - also technology that St. Francis was the first to provide in the state of Georgia.

It's news thousands of women get every year, a mammogram shows something that needs further testing.

In most cases, as was for Barbara, the next step is a biopsy to determine if what they're seeing is cancer. Fortunately for Barbara, the results came back negative. Doctors say even though it's difficult to hear there may be something wrong, regular mammograms are key to finding and curing breast cancer.

"The earlier diagnosis of breast cancer the better the prognosis in the long run but it's understandable people are going to be afraid and sometimes they tend to want to put things off because they are afraid and that's just the wrong thing to do," says breast cancer surgeon Dr. Charles Scarborough of the St. Francis Center for Surgical Care.

Fifty-four-year-old Jeane Schomburg calls herself the "team mom" of St. Francis's Orthopedic Institute. Her actual title is Practice Director of the center.

Last year Schomburg was diagnosed with stage 2-B breast cancer after discovering a lump in her breast. She'd had mammograms faithfully each year, so doctors caught her cancer early, giving Jeane the best possible outcome.

"Once I had the definitive diagnosis things moved very quickly and I was able to have all these other additional tests done within a month and actually receive chemotherapy the first day of April. So the plan was put into place very quickly so I feel very fortunate," Schomburg says.

Dr. Scarborough says Jeane's positive outcome is more of the norm these days than the exception.

"The vast majority of patients we see today with early stage breast cancer are going to be cured with appropriate treatment," Dr. Scarborough says. "Mammography in my view saves more lives than anything contrary to some of the things you're hearing nationally now. Everybody over the age of 40 should be having mammograms every year. We see 15 to 20 cancers each year maybe more that skipped a mammogram one year and then it showed up."

Jeane is just one surgery away from completing her treatment and finally, she says her hair is growing back from chemotherapy.

She hopes her story will convince other women to be proactive about their health making sure to get regular mammograms. She says it's important to remember that even if something shows up, the sooner you find it the better.

"Early intervention is so important because it is treatable. The pathways are very defined, they work and life is too short. We don't want to lose any more than you have to," says Schomburg.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women have an annual mammogram between the ages of 45 and 55 and every two years after that if they are in good health. Breast cancer is not limited to women, the lifetime risk for men is about one in 1000.

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