Breast Cancer: Are Ultrasounds As Effective As Mammograms?

First Posted: Dec 29, 2015 06:13 PM EST

New findings published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute show that mammograms and ultrasonography are equally as effective at detecting breast cancer.

More specifically, the study showed that ultrasonography may be particularly helpful for diagnosing cancer in women with dense breasts and helpful for those in developing countries who may have more access to ultrasonography over mammography.

"One is not better than another," said Dr. Lusi Tumyan, City of Hope assistant clinical professor and section chief of breast imaging in the Department of Radiology, via Healthline. "They are complementary. They should be seen as such and used as such rather than one as a substitute for the other. At least this is the case where both are widely available."

Ultrasound is generally used as a follow-up test once a potential breast tumor has been discovered through a mammogram or a physical exam, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). However,  the medical organization adds that ultrasound is a valuable tool that's widely available and noninvasive.

During the study, researchers examined over 2,800 participants in the United States, Canada and Argentina who had ultrasounds and mammograms annually for three years. Though they showed no symptoms of breast cancer at the start of the study, they did have dense breast tissue, which is considered a risk factor for breast cancer, as well as another risk factor for breast cancer.

From the sample, findings showed that 111 women had breast cancer events, 80.2 percent of which were invasive with a median tumor size of 12 millimeters. Furthermore, the they found that about the same number of mammograms and ultrasounds detected cancer. However, ultrasounds detected cancer that was more likely to be invasive and node-negative. Unfortunately, false positives were more common with ultrasounds.

"For U.S. patients, what [this study] really confirms is ultrasound should be used as a supplemental screening exam in dense breast patients," said Tumyan. "At this time we do not have enough data to support or refute ultrasound as a screening tool for average-risk patients."

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