Before you can treat breast cancer, you've got to find it. Detecting breast cancers early can save lives and reduce the disfigurement and illness that often accompany treatment.
So, for many decades, researchers have tried to find better ways to detect breast cancer. In 1980, about four out of every five women who contracted breast cancer found the lump on their own. Although breast self-examination is still important, most breast cancers today are discovered when a woman has a mammogram, ultrasound or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
But even when a test reveals a suspicious lump, the only accepted way today to find out for sure whether it is cancerous is a biopsy. Ultrasound and MRI imaging can detect small cancers in some women better than a mammogram, but they also show benign as well as malignant lesions. This is one reason that about four out of every five breast biopsies shows that the suspected area was benign.
The surgery involved with biopsies is costly and involves its own risks. So, for many years, women and their doctors have hoped for a diagnostic test that would both detect suspicious areas inside a breast and tell whether or not it is cancerous, without invasive surgery. After more than two decades of research, a promising new technique called elastography may be ready to fulfill that hope.