Advancement in early breast cancer detection

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Ahead of the game: Community Hospital is the first hospital in the state of Indiana to offer advanced Positron Emission Mammography (PEM). Nurse Suzanne Ruiz (left) and Dr. Mary Nicholson, a fellowship-trained breast radiologist, use the new equipment that adds 3D imaging capabilities to the comprehensive breast cancer services available through the Women’s Diagnostic Center in Munster. | Supplied photo

“There was a suspicious spot detected on your mammogram.” Words no woman wants to hear.

Beverly Olson, of Gary, has heard those words before. More than 10 years ago the 81-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer after a biopsy confirmed that the suspicious spot appearing on her mammogram was indeed cancer. She attacked her cancer with radiation therapy and has been cancer free since.

Earlier this year, when a routine mammogram again indicated a suspicious spot, this time on the other breast, Olson said she was ready to go through the whole process. and the pain and uncertainty it entails, again.

“I thought, ‘What do I do? Are they going to go in and cut me open again or what?’” Olson said.

Much to her surprise, she learned a biopsy was not necessary. Olson was one of the first women in Northwest Indiana to be able to take advantage of new cutting-edge technology — advanced Positron Emission Mammography — available at Community Hospital’s Women’s Diagnostic Center in Munster. Currently, there are less than 70 of the machines available in the United States.

How it works

PEM scans enable doctors to better determine if cancer is present in the breast, according to Dr. Mary Nicholson, fellowship-trained, dedicated breast radiologist at Community Hospital and regional director of breast imaging services for Community Healthcare System.

“With this sophisticated technology, we have the ability to better determine if cancer is present or not,” Nicholson said. “Unlike mammography, 3D tomography, ultrasound or MRI, this technology will demonstrate how tissue behaves to determine whether it is cancer behavior or normal breast tissue behavior.”

Community Healthcare uses Naviscan, a high-resolution Positron Emission Tomography scanner, to perform the PEM. Unlike a typical mammography, the PEM scan immobilizes the breast instead of compressing it to image the tissue.

The scanner shows the location as well as the metabolic phase of a breast mass or growth. The precision of the equipment enables physicians to determine optimal cancer care decisions for masses as small as 1.6 mm, the size of a grain of rice. Currently with existing technology, a tumor must be about 2 centimeters in size for detection.

“We want people to recognize we really are trying to be breast guardians,” Nicholson said.

No need for biopsies

Nicholson becomes animated when discussing how the technology will change breast cancer care for women. With this level of detection it is possible to find more cancers when they are still curable and that means more women will survive, she said.

“If we can detect it, we can really help people survive,” Nicholson said.

Not only is the PEM technology more precise, it is also less invasive. Due to the ability of the equipment to determine with precision whether a mass or growth is cancer by its metabolic rate, the need for biopsies on suspect areas is eliminated.

Olson said the new technology offers women the peace of mind to learn what is going on inside of their bodies without an invasive and painful test.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Olson said. “The less you have done, the better.”

Fortunately for Olson, the results of her PEM scan came back showing the suspect spot was not cancerous. The experience was a relief. Olson was pleased to learn her cancer remains in remission and did not spread to her other breast. She also was glad she did not have to go through the pain and discomfort of a biopsy to find out.

Olson said the new scanner is beneficial physically, emotionally, medically and financially.

“I think we are very lucky to have it in this area,” she said.

For more information about specialized women’s care and the programs and services offered by Community Hospital in Munster, visit our website at or call the Women’s Diagnostic Center at (219) 934-8869.