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New study hopes to effectively detect breast cancer amidst more dense tissue

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - It's breast cancer awareness month, and a study happening right here in West Michigan could change the way some women are screened for the disease.

It is not uncommon for a woman to have dense breast tissue.

When that's the case, when a woman has dense breast tissue, it can be harder to detect breast cancer with a traditional 2d or 3d mammogram.

But can an MRI? That's what researchers at Bronson Hospital are trying to determine, and they're already seeing positive results.

Two black and white images, which side-by-side look very similar. But a closer look reveals a potentially life changing difference.

“There are 2 problems with women with dense tissue--one is that it's harder to see things, and the second is that they have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer,” said Dr. Christina Jacobs, breast imaging director at Bronson. “So, it's almost a double whammy.”

That's why Bronson Hospital and West Michigan Cancer Center are participating in a national study, looking at breast MRI as a screening tool for women with dense tissue, and comparing it to tomosynthesis, or 3d mammogram.

“MRI's look at the tissue in a different way, because we inject contrast material, so not only are we looking at anatomy, but also we're looking at physiology in the breast. Tumors usually take up dye--they have blood flow--that's different than normal breast tissue almost obvious on an MRI, where they could be invisible on a mammogram,” Dr. Jacobs said.

Dr. Jacobs says the risk associated with a breast MRI is very low for the patient. They're only about a year into the study, but so far, she's impressed with the results locally.

“We're getting good quality exams. I am comfortable with us reading them. They're quicker and easier to read, and we have found one early cancer,” she said.

That's one person getting treatment sooner. And hopefully, one life saved.

While the hope is to spot issues earlier, as the study moves forward doctors and researchers also hope they'll be able to determine if this process produces false positives--something they don't want for a patient.

“Because we know that finding women at an early stage saves lives; if we show that the MRI is finding more cancers at stage 1, stage 0, then you can infer that it's going to be a survival benefit,” Dr. Jacobs said.

So, what's next? Dr. Jacobs says this study is actually fairly small.

Once patient data is collected nationwide, those results will determine if this is something that should be pursued on a larger scale.

It is also important to note that 2d and 3d mammograms are still effective screening tools for all women including women with dense breasts.

But this study is certainly something we will be keeping an eye on.

If you are interested, Bronson is currently still looking for women to participate in the study. To learn more, email clinicaltrials@wmcc.org, or call Wendi, Carin or Amber at West Michigan Cancer Center, at 269-373-7443.

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