Seeing breast cancer more clearly

Mammograms save lives, but for millions of women, it's not enough. Now, doctors have designed a new type of technology that picks up the tumors that mammograms may miss.

Marcia Marin is one of the first beneficiaries of this new diagnostic tool.  Marcia has known for a long time that she was at high risk for breast cancer.

"My aunt was 40 years old when she had breast cancer. Then my mother developed breast cancer."

A few years ago, a mammogram found Marcia also had breast cancer. Like 25 percent of women, she has dense breast tissue, which makes it hard to detect tumors.

Deborah Rhodes, MD is an Internal Medicin Specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.  Rhodes said the number of missed cases among women with dense breast tissue is alarming.

"In fact, in those women, mammography can miss one out of every two cancers."

A team of doctors at the Mayo Clinic developed molecular breast imaging or MBI. Women get an injection of a radioactive tracer that travels to the tumor cells and lights them up.

Michael O'Connor, PhD, a Professor of Radiologic Physics at the Mayo Clinic, said the results are remarkable.

"It's like seeing a lighthouse. You see this beacon in the breast and it's very easy to pick up the tumor."

In a study of more than 900 women, molecular breast imaging picked up three-times as many cancerous tumors as a mammogram.

"We've shown we can detect even very small cancers those that are under 10 millimeters.  In about 10 percent of the cases we would also find additional small tumors that the mammogram was missing."

That's exactly what happened to Marcia. In the study, the MBI found a second tumor the mammogram missed. It changed her course of treatment.

"I was like wow, I didn't realize that the mammogram only had picked up the central tumor."

After surgery and chemo, Marcia's a healthy Mom again, getting ready to send her kids off to college.

"It's gonna be a new chapter in our lives."

Doctors say the new procedure is also more comfortable than a mammogram. Researchers hope to make it available to the public within the next few years