Harvard Women's Health Watch

Advances in breast imaging

Although mammography remains standard for breast cancer screening, several newer technologies are helping to fine-tune diagnosis.

Doctors have been making radiologic images of women's breasts for almost a century. The first, taken in 1913, were x-rays of breasts that had been surgically removed. In studying these early images, doctors found that they could distinguish malignant from benign tissue, even when cancer hadn't been suspected. Here was a possible alternative to the then-standard detection method — removing a palpable lump (if not the entire breast) and examining the tissue under a microscope.

At first, breast x-rays were disappointing. The images were often blurred by the beating of the heart, and it was difficult to distinguish tumors from breast ducts. But decades of research eventually produced x-ray equipment specifically designed for breast imaging. The new machines used low-energy x-rays and produced crisper images. New devices compressed the breast between two plates, reducing breast movement and smoothing out the tissue. By the late 1960s, mammography as we know it had been born.

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