Last week, Boing Boing editor Xeni Jardin live-tweeted her first mammogram — and same-day cancer diagnosis. A number of readers wanted to know if it was possible to be diagnosed with breast cancer so quickly. According to the experts we talked to, the answer is: not exactly.
In response to Jardin's experience, two main questions stood out. We'll tackle them each separately.
Can mammograms diagnose breast cancer on their own?
I wrote to Dr. Karla Kerlikowske, professor of medicine and epidemiology/biostatistics at USCF's Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. She explained,
Mammograms can identify a site likely to be cancer, but it requires taking a sample of breast tissue and looking at it under a microscope to know a person has breast cancer. Rarely, <1% of the time a radiologist can look at a mammogram and based on the mammogram know a woman has breast cancer, even then it requires a tissue diagnosis for confirmation.
I also spoke with Olive Peart, radiographer and author of the textbook Mammography and Breast Imaging: Just The Facts. She explained that "the mammogram is not 100% accurate. The accuracy will depend on the skills of the technologist (person taking the mammogram), the skills of the radiologist (doctor), and the equipment used." She noted that mammograms can actually miss 10-20% of cancers. "Fortunately," she added, "the mammogram is not the sole tool for detecting breast cancer (it is the gold standard and the most comprehensive) and most radiologists will recognize when an additional tool is needed and will therefore recommend that the patient have further testing."
Bottom line: a tissue diagnosis is required to confirm breast cancer.
Can you receive a breast cancer diagnosis the same day as a mammogram?
Kerlikowske explained that this was "possible but not likely since it takes having a radiologist present to perform the biopsy and having a designated suite for biopsies. It usually requires scheduling and it can takes 1 to 2 weeks." Peart added that, "some private mammography centers will have you take a mammogram then speak to the radiologist immediately afterward." The Pink Lotus Breast Center, where Jardin received her mammogram, does offer same-day reading of mammograms by a radiologist. I spoke with a doctor's assistant there who confirmed that radiologists there could provide their professional opinion on whether a mammogram indicated cancer, the same day the mammogram was performed. However, she emphasized that a biopsy would be needed to confirm the diagnosis, and that confirmation couldn't be completed in a single day. Even if the biopsy was performed right away, it would take at least 24 hours for results to come back. So while it would be possible for a patient to go to Pink Lotus and receive a doctor's opinion that she likely had breast cancer, all in one day, a hard-and-fast diagnosis would take longer.
Bottom line: you could learn that you're likely to have breast cancer in a single day, but it will almost certainly take longer than that to be 100% positive.
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