Approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year, 3-D mammograms give a deeper view of breast tissue than traditional two-dimensional tests. The device allows doctors to examine breast tissue in individual layers rather than in one big mass.
The 3-D views enable doctors to detect small lumps that may get lost in layers of tissue and thus allow earlier breast cancer detection, said Dr. Rakhi Goel, director of breast imaging at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It will also give clearer readings on women who have dense breast tissue, Goel said. Dense breast tissue sometimes appears as cancerous or abnormal in traditional mammograms.
"We can see that it is normal tissue and truly not a mass," said Goel of the new technology. She added that more accurate readings mean that fewer women will have to come in for follow-up visits or get biopsies because doctors aren't sure if a lump is cancerous.
About 40 million mammograms are performed in the United States each year and about 4 million patients are called back for additional exams, including more than 1 million patients who have to get biopsies, or have sample tissue removed from their breast.
"It reduces the number of women that would potentially have to come back for additional evaluation and reduces undue worry and unnecessary trips," Goel said.
The Baltimore VA, which serves the area's military veterans, began using the technology two months ago. Radiology labs in Maryland use the machine, but no other hospitals have the technology.
Because the technology is so new, the FDA approved only secondary use of the machine, developed by Massachusetts medical device company Hologic. Its use is allowed in conjunction with a two-dimensional mammogram, Goel said.
But the device shows promise for more accurate testing. A recent study by Massachusetts General Hospital found that testing accuracy improves 7 percent with use of three-dimensional machines.
The procedure doesn't feel any different to the patient, whose breasts are compressed between two plates as during a two-dimensional mammogram. The most noticeable difference in the test are that the arm of the machine sweeps above the patient to get several shots of the breast, rather than remaining stationary, as on a traditional machine. The 3-D tests also last a few seconds longer.
Kate Conroy of Baltimore received a 3-D mammogram last month at the Baltimore VA and said she noticed her doctor was able to read the results more quickly.
The 49-year-old, who finished a stint in the Army in 1992, said she likes that there is a mammogram that is potentially more accurate.
"They can detect problems sooner, which is always better," said Conroy, who works as a national defense liaison.
Goel said she has noticed fewer women are having to come back for exams, although she said it will take more time to confirm any concrete trends.
"It is making a difference," she said.