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3D mammography and the impact of early intervention

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and that means women are receiving plenty of messages about risk factors and how to check for signs of cancer. Breast cancer affects more women than almost any other cancer so it’s good to spread the word, but a few important details are often missing. At least according to Dr. Dulcy Wolverton, a radiologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. She’s been in the business of detecting and treating breast cancer for a long time–25 years in fact–and that made us think she probably knows what she’s talking about.

Most women have heard that they need yearly mammograms starting at age 40 so they can safely avoid a serious battle with breast cancer, and that’s true, but sometimes the significance of genetic risk factors is played up, and the reasons for screenings are not clearly explained.

“Most people focus on risk – if it’s not in their family, they think they don’t need to worry about it. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Most women who develop breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors–about 75 percent,” said Dr. Wolverton.

That misunderstanding can lead some women to assume they don’t need regular mammograms. But unfortunately, that’s a false assumption of safety. The most common risk factor is, well, being a woman.

That’s not to say every woman will get breast cancer, most will not, but with all of the carcinogens we’re exposed to in modern society, it’s worth taking the time to get screened. Especially because of the significant role early detection can play in helping women beat cancer. “If cancer is detected by mammography, the chances of survival are 90 percent,” said Dr. Wolverton.

That 90 percent statistic is in large part due to a new form of imaging called tomosynthesis, or more commonly 3-D mammography. It came onto the scene in 2011 and it’s provided a more reliable way to find cancer earlier. “There’s a lot of data that has come out to show that our ability to detect breast cancer is significantly improved with 3D mammography,” says Dr. Wolverton, “We’re able to find smaller cancers–and we can reduce our callback rates.”

Reducing callbacks means that fewer women receive unnecessary scares. Earlier detection of smaller cancers means a higher likelihood of successful intervention and less invasive intervention. For younger women, cancer grows more quickly so catching it early truly can be the difference between life and death.

Overall, the impact of 3D mammography is clear–it’s working. Luckily, for CU Health Plan members this service is now a standard benefit of all Anthem plans.

Wading through all of the information about breast cancer can be overwhelming, but the main message from Dr. Wolverton is straightforward, “We want to find these things early, and that’s what breast cancer awareness is all about.”