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Fighting Cancer with 3D Mammography at St. Luke’s

Category: Health Stories
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Dr. Kerri Harting, radiologist at St. Luke's Breast Center, with breast cancer survivor Anne Thomas.

Anne Thomas believes that 3D mammography saved her life. Thanks to this advancement in breast cancer screening technology, her doctors were able to identify and remove a cancerous tumor no wider than a penny.

“My heart just dropped,” Anne said as she remembered being told she was going to need surgery, “but without getting a 3D mammogram, I wouldn’t have known. I feel really fortunate.” Now, 20 rounds of radiation later and only two months after her initial diagnosis, she can proudly say that she is cancer free.

“We’re detecting cancers earlier with 3D mammography,” said Dr. Kerri Harting, radiologist at St. Luke’s Breast Center. “This is why mammograms save lives. The earlier we can detect the cancer, the better.”

More clarity, fewer callbacks

During a traditional mammogram, the breast tissue is compressed between two plates for X-rays. “This spreads the tissue out and helps us see what’s going on,” explained Dr. Jennifer Witt, breast conservation surgeon at St. Luke’s. This process is the same during a 3D mammogram, resulting in an identical experience for the patient.

However, where traditional mammography only takes two pictures of each breast, a 3D mammogram takes 15 in the same amount of time. This provides clear three-dimensional images, making any abnormalities easier to identify.

Due to this increased clarity, one of the main benefits of 3D mammography is the reduced number of callbacks. “If I see an abnormality, the patient has to come back for additional views with mammography, possibly ultrasound, or even a biopsy, when it could just be overlapping tissues,” Dr. Harting said. “With 3D mammography, we can look at the breast tissue in 1 millimeter sections. This eliminates overlap in tissue and helps us see much more clearly.”

Reduced callbacks means fewer investigative ultrasounds and biopsies, less time off work for patients and, most of all, less anxiety from abnormal findings.

Spotting cancer sooner

3D mammography is also proven to detect cancer sooner, especially the more-invasive types of cancer that can be harder to spot. “There are different types of breast cancers,” explained Dr. Witt. “Invasive ductal breast cancer is the most common type, and it shows up well on mammograms.” This cancer is also easier to feel during self-exams.

Then there’s the second most common type of breast cancer: lobular carcinoma. “Lobular breast cancer may not show up well,” Dr. Witt explained, “it tends to look less pronounced.” This cancer may also be more difficult for patients to feel. The harder-to-detect nature of this cancer can allow it to grow which may result in a less hopeful prognosis when it is found. “So, catching lobular early is a huge gift,” said Dr. Witt.

Lobular breast cancer survivor Susan Larson Kidd found this out first hand. After hearing about 3D mammography and with her primary care provider’s encouragement, she decided to try it. An irregularity was spotted on her images, so she came back in for an ultrasound and a biopsy. A little over a month later, Susan successfully had a small portion of lobular breast cancer removed. Now, she’s cancer free.

“I’m just so glad I did it and caught it early,” she said. “I think women should do whatever they can to get a 3D mammogram.”

3D mammography at St. Luke’s


With all the benefits from being able to see more clearly and with an identical experience to a traditional mammogram, 3D mammography is highly advocated by St. Luke’s Breast Center specialists. “I strongly recommend women get mammograms yearly,” said Dr. Harting, “and I strongly recommend 3D.”

After her experience, Anne Thomas can personally vouch for the benefits of annual mammograms. “My 2019 screening was only one year and one week after my 2018 screening -- which had been completely clear,” Anne said. “Had I not gone in right away for my annual screening I wouldn't have caught my cancer so early.”

The only difference between traditional mammography and 3D is a slight increase in cost, which may not be covered by some insurance companies. “More and more insurance companies are catching on and covering this,” Dr. Harting explained.

In general, 40 is the typical age breast cancer screening should start. However, if a woman has a history of breast cancer in her family or other factors that put her at higher risk, screenings could begin earlier. “We don’t want to over-test patients,” said Dr. Witt, “but we do want to catch breast cancer in its early stages. So, it has to be a little bit of an individualized calculation.” She encourages every woman to talk to her primary care provider to create a plan for breast cancer prevention.

As for where to get your annual 3D mammogram, Susan recommends St. Luke’s. “This kind of thing is going to be happening to people,” said Susan, “and the way St. Luke’s treated me made all the difference in the world. Everyone was respectful and kind to me. I never felt like I was just another case.”

3D mammography is available at St. Luke's Breast Center, St. Luke's Chequamegon Clinic and Lake View Medical Clinic. To schedule your annual mammogram today, call 218.249.5593 or visit slhduluth.com/mammogram.

This article was published in the 2019 October issue of The Woman Today.

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