Mammograms are the best way to detect changes in breast tissues, but they are not always accurate for women with dense breast tissue. Breast ultrasounds have been used for several years to get a clearer look at all areas of the breast, especially for those with dense breast tissue.
Jeanne Chaffin, of Lake Charles, knows breast cancer runs in her family, so she keeps a close check on her breast health. "I do breast self exams once a month," she said, "if I feel something, I will usually contact my doctor and let him know that I have a new lump that has cropped up."
It has been 30 years since Jeanne felt her first lump and there have been several through the years. "You can kind of slide your fingers across and tell that something's there," she said, "they typically feel hard."
Once she feels a lump, Jeanne calls her doctor and from there a mammogram is ordered. "I've had a few mammograms that were abnormal and had to have an ultrasound afterwards," she said.
Jeanne, like many women, has dense breast tissue. Lake Charles Memorial Hospital sonographer, Ashley Broussard, says mammogram x-rays have a tough time seeing through dense breast tissue. "Dense breast tissue appears very bright and white," she said. "A fattier breast tissue would be a little more gray, a little darker, it wouldn't have as many striations in it as this does."
Tumors can blend in more easily to dense breast tissue, but that does not mean mammograms are not effective. When used along with breast ultrasounds, the entire breast, even the hard-to-see chest wall, can be studied. "We're looking for anything that is unusual, characteristically of breast tissue: cysts, masses, lymph nodes," said Broussard.
Broussard says cancerous masses have a specific look. "Benign masses usually are really smooth," she said. "Cancers tend to be more what we call 'spiculated.'"
If a suspicious mass is found, a biopsy will be ordered to determine whether or not it is cancerous.
For Jeanne, biopsies brought good news: no cancer. But she is not going to relax in her breast health routine. "It scares me to let things go," she said. "Ignoring it is not the answer. You need to deal with it."
Breast ultrasounds are also recommended for women with silicone breast implants, those that are pregnant or should not be exposed to mammogram x-rays and women with a higher risk for breast cancer.