New strides in breast health care

3-D imaging, relaxing atmosphere are latest for mammograms

Debra Babin, 57, is diligent about scheduling annual mammograms for herself.

"My grandmother had breast cancer," said Babin, office manager for an energy efficiency company. "And my colleague was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 … it reoccurred in 2013."

Although her colleague had a double mastectomy, cancer was found in her brain, and she died earlier this year.

"It was very sad," Babin said.

So she educates herself on developments in breast care and cancer prevention.

"Since I was diagnosed with dense breast tissue," Babin said, "I have for the last two mammograms selected the 3-D imaging one."

Most patients do opt for 3-D imaging mammograms, said Linda Womack, executive director of imaging services at John Muir Medical Center.

"Bay Area women are very educated," Womack said. "There has been a lot in the press about density in breast tissue and the benefits of 3-D mammograms, so people will call to schedule an exam and say they heard about it."

Some insurance plans do not cover the 3-D mammogram, in which case the patient pays the extra $35.

"The reason is it does take a lot longer for the radiologist to read, it's a much more in-depth test," Womack said.

The new mammogram uses multiple low-dose images, creating a three-dimensional view of the breast that lets the doctor examine it layer by layer. This imaging has been clinically proven to detect 41% more invasive cancers compared to two-dimensional mammography. It is especially helpful for breasts with dense tissue, Womack noted.

"All of a sudden, we've got the technology and are starting to see Stage 1 cancer -- the dense breast tissue was literally hiding the cancer," she said. "This new technology is able to get through all that density and really see what is going on."

The mammography is performed the same, with the same amount of time and compression, but it is imaged differently, Womack explained.

"The dense tissue looks like a big ball of white, and trying to decipher all the layers of whiteness is hard," she said, "but on a 3-D image, we are looking at every layer."

The new technology helps to diagnose breast cancer early, before it spreads and when it can be treated less invasively.

"At a later stage it is more aggressive and spreadable," Womack said.

John Muir Health opened its new Breast Health Center in April, locating imaging, biopsies, genetic counseling, a nurse navigator (who educates and advocates for the patient), a consultation room and a breast education library all in one location, which shares the parking lot with the hospital in Walnut Creek. The center was designed for a soothing experience, with spa robes rather than patient gowns, relaxing music and calming nature pictures on the walls.

In Pleasanton, Stanford ValleyCare offers breast cancer detection, including 3-D mammograms, treatments and specialized care at its Breast Center of Excellence, and has also designed its imaging center to be soothing as well as private. It is located in the same building as its ValleyCare Health Library and Ryan Comer Cancer Resource Center.

San Ramon Regional Medical Center also offers comprehensive breast health services in one location, including 3-D mammograms and other tests for breast cancer. It also was designed to be an inviting and patient-focused environment.

During October, in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, from 5-7 p.m. each Tuesday, the John Muir Breast Health Center will host evenings with information on breast health plus offer refreshments, spa robes and chair massages. Mammography screenings can also be scheduled on these evenings with a doctor's prescription or order. Call 952-2701.

By the end of the year, John Muir health plans to deliver same-day imaging and same-day biopsies.

Meanwhile, Babin was pleased to find her annual mammogram was clean, and she noted the ambiance and efficiency at the new John Muir Breast Health Center.

"I'm very healthy, and I am happy for that," Babin said.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. Deaths from breast cancer have declined over time, but it remains the second leading cause of cancer death among women overall and the leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic women.

Each year in the U.S., about 220,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,000 in men. About 40,000 women and 400 men in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer.

Over the last decade, the risk of getting breast cancer has not changed for women overall, but the risk has increased for black women and Asian and Pacific Islander women. Black women have a higher risk of death from breast cancer than white women.

The risk of getting breast cancer goes up with age. In the United States, the average age when women are diagnosed with breast cancer is 61. Men who get breast cancer are diagnosed usually between 60 and 70 years old.

* Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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