3-D mammograms see breast tissue better

When Toby Klausner found out about the new 3D mammograms at Brookhaven Women’s Imaging Services on Long Island, N.Y., she choose the new method for her yearly mammogram instead of the typical 2D version.

“I had heard about it, and then I asked for it,” said Klausner, 69, whose doctors found a lump in her breast several years ago. The lump turned out to be benign, but she initially thought her “life was over.” Now, she stresses each time she has a mammogram.

Slideshow: 3D Technology for Better Breast Detection

The 3-D mammogram or tomosynthesis – the process of performing high-resolution limited-angle tomography at mammographic dose levels – is made by Hologic.


Peter Soltani, vice president and general manager of the breast health segment of Hologic, said the technology is beneficial for any woman, but especially those with dense breasts, like Klausner. The 3-D technology allows the camera to remove any overlap and see breast tissue more clearly.

“In the 20 years I’ve been doing breast imaging, this is the single best advancement I have ever seen,” said Dr. Arlene Sussman, director of Women’s Imaging for Brookhaven Memorial Hospital. “It takes the traditional 2-D mammogram, liken it to a circle and turns it into a ball, and that’s what 3-D tomosynthesis is. It allows you to see through the breast.”

The idea of tomosynthesis dates back to the 1930s, and Hologic’s product is the only kind in the United States. (The company does have competition overseas).

Sometimes women with dense breasts have tissue that is comparable to the density of cancer tissue, and traditional mammography can’t always differentiate between cancer and that of normal tissue, Soltani said.

Approximately 300 institutions are using Hologic’s new mammogram in the U.S., which the company has researched since 2000. It became commercially available after its Food and Drug Administration approval in February 2011.

Currently, most insurances do not cover the 3-D portion of the procedure (a 2-D picture is still taken); however, some insurances will use a miscellaneous code to cover patients, or hospitals may not bill the patient the extra fee, which is roughly $50.

“We’re working with professional societies to get an insurance code,” Soltani said.

Sussman said the new mammogram is comparable to the traditional version.  The breasts are still compressed in a machine between two metal plates, and the X-ray takes an image. After the images are acquired, a computer translates them into a high-resolution slice image, which doctors can scroll through in about 1 millimeter sections.

“When I went for it, it was actually more comfortable than the traditional method,” Klausner said. “It can see even smaller lesions, and that excited me.”

A Yale study found 3-D mammograms reduces the rate of call backs by 40 percent – as well as reduced radiation, reduced stress and allowed for fewer biopsies.

Sussman said the 3-D mammogram reduces radiation exposure because of less call backs, and the enhanced pictures make it easier to detect a problem.

"The localization of the tumor or understanding the extent of the disease, if it's there, allows us and affords us more accurate and better treatment options," Sussman said, adding this is a 'game changer' in the fight against breast cancer. "So, if we're able to use a new technology that allows us to pick it up when it's smaller – smaller is better."

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. More than 210,00 U.S. women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additional reporting by Jessica Ryen Doyle and Melissa Browne Weir.