Mammograms are not like birthdays or holidays; they may be an annual affair, but they’re not something most people look forward to, and many women choose to put them off because of financial issues or fear of the discomfort and pain associated with the traditional mammogram. But early detection is the best way to keep breast cancer from taking lives, so finding new ways to encourage women to get their mammograms regularly is vitally important.
Now, thanks to a research team from Kobe University in Japan, there’s a new type of mammography machine that may change the way women view mammograms for the better. The new technique promises to be safer, more accurate, and less painful than a normal mammogram, which would be a huge leap forward for the industry.
The technology utilizes microwaves to detect small tumors in the breast. A medical professional moves an antenna over the surface of the breast, and the microwaves create a highly accurate image of it in 3-D.
“In the breast, a tumor reflects back the microwave as though it was a mirror,” says Kenjiro Kimura, a professor of chemical and condensed matter physics at Kobe University who is part of the research team. “This is the ideal method to use in detecting breast cancer among women.”
The downfalls of a regular mammogram mainly lie in the x-ray technology it uses and the lack of accuracy. X-rays release radiation, which can be harmful to patients, particularly those who have already been exposed to more than the recommended dose of radiation. Mammograms can also miss tumors, because cancer and dense breast tissue show up as the same color on a mammogram (white), making it difficult to detect small tumors.
But worst of all is the fact that mammography equipment sandwiches the breast between two cold hard plates, causing discomfort and even pain. So many women cancel or never schedule necessary mammography appointments to avoid this discomfort, even though going to an appointment could save their lives.
Happily, the Japanese team’s invention solves all of these issues. It uses microwaves rather than x-rays, which are safer for the human body, because they’re very weak, only about one-thousandth of the power of a cellular phone. Its super-accurate depiction of the breast also helps make sure no tumors get missed, even in cases of dense breast tissue. And, perhaps best of all, it alleviates the discomfort of a mammogram by not requiring the breast to be compressed to get a good image.
One drawback of the new technology, however, is that it can only be used to detect cancer in the breast, not in most other parts of the body. This is because its microwaves are able to pass through the fatty tissue of the breast but not through muscle, inhibiting it from finding tumors that exist underneath layers of muscle. But traditional mammograms only detect cancer in the breast as well, so there’s no real loss there.
Each year, roughly 14,000 women die of breast cancer in Japan alone. The team hopes to commercialize their invention as early as 2021 so that more women around the globe can benefit from mammograms that don’t induce fear or pain. We can’t wait!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?