Ultrasound is an imaging test that sends high-frequency sound waves through the breast and converts them into images on a viewing screen. There is no radiation involved.
Ultrasound is not commonly used on its own as a screening test for breast cancer. Instead, it’s used to complement other screening tests, such as mammography. Ultrasounds are sometimes recommended for women with dense breasts because it can be harder for mammograms to detect cancer in dense breasts.
A study has found that ultrasound finds about the same amount of breast cancers as mammography.
The study was published online on Dec. 28, 2015 by the JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
While screening mammograms aren’t perfect, they are considered the best way we have right now to detect breast cancer early, when it’s most treatable. But in many less developed countries, mammograms are not readily available, so the researchers who did this study wanted to know if ultrasound could be a good alternative screening method.
In the study, 2,662 women from the United States, Canada, and Argentina had a breast cancer screening test once a year for 3 years:
- 4,351 women had screening with ultrasound and film-screen mammograms
- 3,122 women had screening with digital mammograms
After the third annual screening, the women had a biopsy if necessary or a 12-month follow-up exam.
During the study, 110 women were diagnosed with 111 breast cancers:
- 89 of the cancers (80.2%) were invasive
Overall, ultrasound found 58 of the 111 breast cancers and mammograms found 59 of the 111 breast cancers.
The researchers found that ultrasound and mammography were similar in how sensitive they were at detecting breast cancer:
- 129 ultrasounds were needed to detect one breast cancer
- 127 mammograms were needed to detect one breast cancer
Ultrasound-detected breast cancers were more likely to be:
- node-negative (meaning no cancer was in the lymph nodes)
Still, ultrasound screening resulted in more false positives. When a screening technique shows an abnormal area that looks like a cancer but turns out to be normal, it’s called a false positive. Ultimately the news is good: no breast cancer. But the suspicious area usually requires follow-up with more than one doctor, extra tests, and extra procedures, including a possible biopsy.
It’s important to know that the researchers are not suggesting that ultrasound take the place of regular screening mammograms.
“Where mammography is available, ultrasound should be seen as a supplemental test for women with dense breasts who do not meet high-risk criteria for screening [with] MRI and for high-risk women with dense breasts who are unable to tolerate MRI," the authors wrote.
But if mammography isn’t available, then ultrasound seems to be a good alternative for breast cancer screening.
There's only one of you and you deserve the best care possible. Don't let any obstacles get in the way of regular breast cancer screening, most likely with a mammogram.
- If you're worried about cost, talk to your doctor, a local hospital social worker, or staff members at a mammogram center. Ask about free programs in your area.
- If you're having problems scheduling a mammogram, call the National Cancer Institute (800-4-CANCER) or the American College of Radiology (800-227-5463) to find certified mammogram providers near you.
- If you find mammograms painful, ask the mammography center staff members how the experience can be as easy and as comfortable as possible for you.
- If you’re concerned about unknown results or being called back for more testing, talk to your doctor about what happens when mammogram results are unclear, as well as what to expect if you’re called back for more testing.
For more information on mammograms and other tests to detect and diagnose breast cancer, visit the Breastcancer.org Screening and Testing section.