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Ultrasound: More Affordable For Breast Cancer Screenings?

For years, it has been recommended that women schedule annual mammograms to help prevent and detect breast cancer in the early stages. Now, as a result of a multinational study, researchers are finding ultrasound screenings could be more affordable and accessible to women while also being more effective.

Dr. Wendie Berg, a professor of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh and practicing radiologist at Magee-Women’s Hospital of UPMC, led researchers through a four-year study that evaluated data from the perspective of using ultrasound as the primary screening method.  

Berg said while the results supported mammography as a successful means of cancer detection, ultrasound was just as effective, if not more so.

“The initial goal of this study was to look at the role that ultrasound might play in increasing early breast cancer detection. And we were successful in that, the two tests are certainly complimentary, and in women who have dense breasts, this is now becoming more standard practice and certainly becoming more widely available,” Berg said.

2,662 women participated at 21 sites throughout the United States, Canada, and Argentina where they completed three annual rounds of mammography screening followed by whole-breast ultrasound. They concluded with a 12-month clinical follow-up in the fourth year.

Despite the positive data, Berg said ultrasound screenings do have one downside-- more false positives are reported. “On the annual, regulator screening with ultrasound, there was an average of about four percent short-term follow-up that was recommended and about nearly two percent of patients were recommended for biopsy on mammography compared to nearly five and a half percent on ultrasound,” Berg said.

Many states require that private insurance companies, Medicaid, and public employee health plans provide coverage and reimbursement for mammograms.  Similar legislation is currently pending in Pennsylvania.  Berg said women should begin scheduling annual mammograms around age 40.

“If you’re going to have screening mammography in your 40s, it is actually more important to do it every year because if there is going to be Cancer, it tends to grow more rapidly in younger women. If the tissue is dense on the mammogram, then it is reasonable to consider adding ultrasound also to the mammogram for screening,” Berg said.