Developments in Diagnosing and Treating Breast Cancer
Two considerable breakthroughs in the fight against breast cancer - a new diagnostic tool can detect tumours that mammograms may miss, and intense radiation treatment can be just as effective for early onset tumours.
Breast cancer can be difficult to diagnose because of the nature of the tissue; mammograms produce x-rays that are quite complex, and ultrasound and MRI scans are likewise hard to decipher. Many tumours resemble normal breast tissue, and small tumours are hard to detect.
New technology, called molecular breast imaging, appears to detect some tumors that were previously unseen. With this technique, small breast cancers absorb a type of radioactive molecule that can then be detected by a special camera. Molecular breast imaging has been used successfully in some screening studies (that is, in well women without known symptoms or breast lumps) to detect unsuspected small tumors, which in some cases had been missed by mammography.
Unfortunately this technology also requires a small radiation dose, and that may present hazards, too. Doctors working with molecular breast imaging also have reported that the technique occasionally may miss a tumor that would have been picked up on routine mammography.
It would seem that while this new technology can be quite useful, it is not appropriate as a replacement for other screening methods but rather as an additional tool for doctors to use.
The other development for breast cancer patients is an effective new radiation method for those with early-stage tumours that cuts radiation treatment from 5-7 weeks down to just a few weeks.
Recent studies from Canada and Japan have suggested that instead of the usual five to seven weeks of treatment, patients may survive just as long if they are treated with larger individual doses of radiotherapy each day for just a few weeks. This finding applies only to patients with small tumors that have not spread to the lymph nodes.
Shorter duration of radiotherapy seems like a good idea, as it would reduce the time away from work or from family duties. What’s the downside?
Larger individual doses of radiation can sometimes cause more side effects, such as inflammation of breast tissue, hardening of the skin over the breast and local discomfort during the radiation. Unfortunately, some of these complications may occur well after treatment is complete. It may be premature to call this strategy a complete success, although it is worth noting that patients were followed for 12 years in the recently published Canadian study.