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Ultrasound test could end breast-cancer biopsy fear

An experimental ultrasound technique that measures how easily breast lumps compress and bounce back could enable doctors to determine instantly whether a woman has cancer or not - without having to do a biopsy.

In a small study of 80 women, the technique, called "elastography," distinguished harmless lumps from malignant ones with nearly 100 percent accuracy. Cancerous tumors are firmer than benign ones.

If the results hold up in a larger study, elastography could save thousands of women from the waiting, cost, discomfort and anxiety of a biopsy, in which cells are removed from the breast and examined under a microscope.

"There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, a lot of fear involved" with biopsies, said Susan Brown, manager of health education for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Up to 1-million biopsies are performed each year on suspicious breast tissue detected by mammograms and self-exams, but as many as eight out of 10 of these biopsies find that the lumps are benign.

Biopsies can cost $200 to $1,000, and it can take days or weeks to get the results. The cost of elastography is not yet clear, but some experts said the procedure might run $100 to $200. It can yield results in minutes.

When checked against biopsies of women's breast tissue, the ultrasound technique correctly identified 17 out of 17 cancerous tumors, and 105 out of 106 harmless lesions. The findings were reported at a national radiology meeting in Chicago this week.

Both traditional ultrasound and elastography use echoes from high-frequency sound waves to create pictures of what is going on inside the body, but elastography goes a step further.

In traditional ultrasound, a doctor or technician places a handheld device on the skin that sends high-frequency sound waves into the body. Organs and tissue reflect the sound back as echoes, which are sent to a computer that turns them into a picture.

Elastography, though, also gauges movement. As the doctor moves the handheld device against the breast, the device collects echoes before and after the compression or movement of the breast tissue. The resulting images show stiff tissues as dark areas and soft tissues as light areas.

Dr. Richard Barr, a professor of radiology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, reported his findings at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting.