Mammograms have long been the gold standard for detecting breast cancer. But they still miss an estimated 15 percent of tumors usually in dense breast tissue.
One possible solution is an experimental method called molecular breast imaging or MBI which lights up cancer hiding in that dense tissue.
Musical talent runs in Marcia Maring's family.
"My whole family majored in music," said Maring.
Unfortunately, that isn't the only trait passed down through the generations.
"My aunt was 40 years old when she had breast cancer. Then my mother developed breast cancer," said Maring.
A few years ago, a mammogram revealed Marcia also had breast cancer. Like 25 percent of women, she has dense breast tissue which makes it hard to detect tumors.
"In fact, in those women mammography can miss one out of every two cancers," said Dr. Deborah Rhodes, internal medicine, Mayo Clinic.
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.
"It's like seeing a lighthouse. You see this beacon in the breast and it's very easy to pick up the tumor," said Michael O'Connor, Ph.D., radiological physics, Mayo Clinic.
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," said Carrie Hruska, Ph.D., radiology researcher, Mayo Clinic.
"In about 10 percent of the cases we would also find additional small tumors that the mammogram was missing," said Dr. Rhodes.
The next test will be to see how MBI stacks up against an MRI or magnetic resonance imaging.
MRI is also an effective alternative to mammograms in detecting breast cancer. But it gives many false alarms that can lead to unnecessary biopsies.
Doctors are hoping MBI's will prove more accurate and cost less - under $500 versus more than $1,000 for an MRI.
More work is needed before the procedure can be used routinely as a breast cancer screening tool.
But for Marcia, helping test MBI was a decision that paid off. The screen 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," said Maring.
After surgery and chemo, Marcia's now a healthy mom getting ready to soon send her kids off to college.
"It's going to be be a new chapter in our lives," said Maring.
Researchers admit one big drawback to MBI is that it uses 8 to 10 times the radiation of mammograms.
Other studies are underway to look at ways to maintain the accuracy with lower levels of radiation.
Researchers hope to make MBI more widely available to the public in the next several years.
MBI is currently available at a limited number of cancer centers. One form of the technology that is FDA approved is Positron Emission Mammography (PEM). It's currently available at:
The Midwest Center for Advanced Imaging
4355 Montgomery Rd.
Naperville, Il 60564
Mary Roy, MD
Midwest Center for Advanced Imaging