Breast Screening, more important than ever.
As many of us get older, we become more concerned over our health and wellbeing. Whether we like it or not, in Australia, there will be over 17,000 women who are going to be diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2017. Just last year, in 2016, over 3,000 women died from breast cancer. More than likely, we will grow up knowing someone who has been affected by the life threatening disease, or be affected ourselves.
Being in control of our own bodies is the number one step to prevention and detection of breast cancer.
Despite tremendous amounts of research and money going into the Cancer Council each year, cancer continues to remain one of the hardest diseases to cure in the world.
Breast cancer survivor Angela McDonald was just fifty years old when she found a suspicious lump on the left side of her chest.
“At the time, I had just lost a lot of weight. I had just got out of the shower and in the corner of my eye I noticed in the mirror an unusual lump on my left breast. I drove to Melbourne to work, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the lump, so I drove straight to a doctors surgery, they examined me and sent me for scans that same day,” she said.
Women need to become comfortable with searching their bodies. Things can change rapidly inside of us, so we need to be aware of the normal appearance of our breasts and other body parts too. Women should ensure when they are checking their breasts that they are their usual shape, size and colour and that their breasts that are evenly shaped without visible distortion or swelling.
Mostly the changes that occur when breast cancer is present will be dimpling, bulging, redness, sore at the touch, swelling or perhaps a nipple has changed shape, size and/ or is inverted. If there are big red lights flashing in your head, and you’re worried about your body, the best thing to do is go and get your breasts looked at by a doctor. Breast cancer can begin all the way up into the underarm and neck and down into the middle section of the ribs.
“My cancer was four centimetres, I would have picked it up had I been any good at self-examination.” Mrs McDonald said.
Here in Victoria, we are lucky enough to have Breast Screen Victoria giving free mammograms to women between 50-74 years of age every two years. However, for the younger girls with any suspicious lumps, bumps or just general enquiries, the price of a mammogram can rocket into the mid $500’s.
“Had I not seen the lump, I’m sure my cancer would have been picked up when they got around to sending me the letter to say that I was now of an age  to have a free mammogram,” Mrs McDonald said.
Breast Screen Victoria has 39 permanent screening clinics and eight assessment clinics around the state. All of which have the same technology, the mammogram x-ray machine.
According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, a mammogram is when a patient’s breast is placed on a flat support plate and compressed with a parallel plate called a paddle. An x-ray machine produces a small burst of x-rays that pass through the breast to a detector located on the opposite side.
Although many women say that the mammogram process is easy and rather pain free, some women, like Angela, had a very unpleasant experience.
“The mammogram is uncomfortable and at the time I was a very small-breasted woman,” she said.
During the month of March, Deakin University in Geelong, hosted one of Breast Screen Victoria’s mobile breast screening vans. Yep, that bright pink van in near the entrance to Deakin was for free! The van serviced only around fifty women, however, the van is now situated in Corio at out the front of leisure centre, Waterworld, and has screened nearly 200 women!
The mobile screening vans host the most up-to-date technology, with the mammogram equipment being the same as in every hospital around Victoria and many hospitals around Australia and New Zealand. The vans have female radiographers and the x-ray results are sent directly to the patient’s GP, who will then organise any further tests if needed.
After asking twenty five women, over the age of 40 what they thought of mammograms and self examination, I decided to see what technology is currently being created for breast screening purposes. I flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, to meet with medical science expert and engineer, Marcus Haggers. Marcus is the CEO of Tiro Medical. Tiro Medical is in the process of trialling a new Breast Screening technology, which instead of compressing the breasts and then x-raying, Tiro’s technology will send small vibrations through the breast to detect any tissue irregularities. Yep, vibrating the breasts! Impressive, right?!
“Around 40% of women currently screened by mammography have dense breast tissue. Dense tissue can appear light grey or white on a mammogram, but unfortunately cancer can also appear white. This makes interpretation difficult. Our technology works by looking at stiffness of the tissues, there is a 3-15 times difference in stiffness between healthy tissue and cancerous tissue, irrespective of tissue density,” Marcus said.
Tiro Medical has trialled over 160 women on the machine. Some women have reported that they have been so comfortable that they have fallen asleep while the vibrations are occurring.
The machine focuses on women with dense or extremely dense breast tissue. Tiro’s technology will be able to screen many younger women who have concerns over changes in their breasts. As younger women have extremely dense breast tissue, which makes it hard to pick up cancerous tissue.
“So, the reason we are focusing on dense breast tissue is because mammography is a great screening tool for the population as a whole, but as you start to sub-divide those populations, it’s great for some groups but not as good for the women who have got dense, or extremely dense breast tissue,” Marcus said.
He estimates Tiro’s new technology will cost about the same as the current mammography and ultrasound procedures, however Tiro Medical’s technology is cutting out the radioactive waves involved in x-rays. Which, for some, is a massive relief, especially pregnant women!
“The device should hopefully be out in Europe in the next three to four years, following that we will target the United States, which will probably be 12-18 months after Europe and we will also focus on Australia and New Zealand during this period too,” Marcus said.
Tiro Medical’s new Breast Screening technology is about the size of a large suitcase and can be transported in the boot or back seat of a car. Making it super easy to transport around the state, country and even the world. The high-tech transitions in Breast Screening technology will be fascinating to watch over the coming years.
Early detection of breast cancer means a higher chance of survival.