More than 3,800 people in Oregon will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, according to the American Cancer Society. The majority will be identified through mammograms.

“Screening mammography is the only screening test that we have that has actually been shown over many years and millions of cases to decrease breast cancer mortality,” says Dr. Jon Ekstrom, a radiologist for Oregon Imaging Centers.

Cancer prevention screenings have dropped significantly in Oregon and nationwide since the COVID-19 health crisis began. Physicians say tests like annual mammograms should not be put off because it’s important to compare the results from year to year.

“When we look at a mammogram, we compare it to last year’s screening and even more important, screening results from two years ago,” says Dr. Jonathan Sims, director of women’s imaging for Oregon Imaging Centers. “There are certain types of breast cancer that can look completely normal except just different from two years ago. So, that change is something that causes the radiologist to say, ‘That needs to be evaluated.’”

Improving detection with 3D technology

Detecting breast cancer has improved significantly with the introduction of 3D mammography.

During a 3D mammogram, a machine takes many low-dose X-rays as it moves over the breast, then a computer compiles the images to create a 3D picture that allows radiologists to see the breast tissues more clearly than what a 2D picture provides, increasing the likelihood of spotting abnormalities.

Dr. Sims says, “What that means to the patient is that you have less chance of being called back for nothing. And we have the benefit of being able to detect smaller breast cancers.”

When should annual breast screening begin?

Annual mammograms are recommended for women starting at age 40, or earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer. Women should also know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any breast changes to their health care provider right away.

A 3D mammogram does not require a referral from a physician, and insurance coverage varies.

Focusing on patient safety

Radiologists with Oregon Imaging are members of the Oregon Cancer Alliance (OCA), a network of community cancer specialists who work together on behalf of newly diagnosed patients to create a coordinated treatment plan.

Clinics in the OCA network are following strict protocols to assure patients that safety is a top priority at all times, but especially during the current health crisis. Safety protocols include:

  • Requiring patients and staff to wear face masks and have their temperatures checked before entering the clinics
  • Providing fewer chairs with more spacing to allow for social distancing in waiting areas
  • Sanitizing exam rooms and high-touch surfaces in between each patient

“We know that regular screenings save lives, and regular screenings will catch cancer earlier,” says Dr. Ekstrom. “I would encourage people not to put it off.”