Elizabeth Snowden: Banking the Odds in Her Favor with New Technology

Patient Perspectives

When it comes to breast cancer, the earlier it's detected, the better a person's chance of recovering. And while a mammogram can help doctors identify abnormal cells in the breast, it can't tell if those cells are cancerous.

So doctors at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center are now testing a new scanner that should help them better diagnose the illness.

Elizabeth Snowden has been fortunate. Her family has never had to deal with breast cancer. But the 73-year-old University City woman still worries about the illness.

"I have three daughters, and I worry about them more than I do myself," noted Snowden, adding: “It’s very important to explore all means and investigative devices to detect breast cancer or any other cancer at an early stage. I am privileged to be a participant as a human subject to promote the research so that we can detect cancer sooner and start treatment sooner.”

So, she's participating in a UCSD clinical trial, testing a new breast cancer screening device called Softscan.

By using infrared light instead of x-rays, the optical imager provides physicians with medical data they can't get from a traditional mammogram, such as oxygen levels and blood flow.

"We can distinguish normal from abnormal tissues and also distinguish potentially cancerous from noncancerous tissues, should there be a tumor located there," explained radiologist Robert Mattrey, M.D., of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center.

With a mammogram, doctors diagnose potential tumors by looking at the shape of growth. If cancer is suspected, the patient must then undergo a biopsy – removal of a tiny piece of the suspicious tissue for microscopic examination -- to determine if it's benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

By employing the Softscan in addition to a mammogram, researchers are hoping they'll eventually be able to diagnose breast cancer without the need for a biopsy.

"So it will decrease the amount of surgeries that would be necessary and if we are really lucky, eliminate biopsy altogether," according to Dr. Mattrey.

It's still too early to know if the scanner will ever replace mammography, but doctors are optimistic that the scanner will help them reach their ultimate goal of improving the speed and accuracy of breast cancer diagnosis.