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Page last updated at 15:18 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 16:18 UK
Keeping abreast of new technology

Prof Gordon Wishart and Kate Monks discuss the infra-red breast scanner

When Kate Monks found another lump in her breast she decided to turn to the latest technology.

An infra-red screening device has proven to be particularly successful at detecting breast abnormalities in younger women.

At 42, Kate found the scan far more comfortable and less intrusive than the traditional mammogram.

Cambridge researchers said using both the scan and mammogram "significantly increased" cancer detection rates.

"When you find a lump it's terrible," said Kate. "Everything goes through your mind. Your life flashes before you."

'Filing cabinet'

Kate decided to try the Digital Infrared BreastScan - although it is currently only available on a private basis.

Having had mammograms in the past, she was amazed at the difference between those and the digital scanning equipment.

"A mammogram is quite invasive and uncomfortable," said Kate.

Professor Wishart and the infra-red breast scanner

"It's a bit like putting your breast in a filing cabinet, to be honest.

"I found out about the scanner and thought I'd give it a go.

"It's non-invasive. You sit back - and of course you're topless - but you just put your hands behind your head and then it's just like a cold airwave over you that lasts about six minutes.

"There's no machinery and nothing touching you at all."

Kate, from Hilton, in Cambridgeshire, was thankful that the lump in her breast turned out to be another benign cyst.

Early detection

Professor Wishart, consultant surgeon at Cambridge Breast Cancer Research Unit, led the research into the effectiveness of the Digital Infrared BreastScan.

He explained: "We know that mammography is not as sensitive in women under 50, because they have dense breast tissue, and it's much harder to see any abnormalities.

"One of the great challenges is to try and find new technologies that might improve the cancer detection rate in younger women."

A mammogram is like putting your breast in a filing cabinet
Kate Monks

If breast tumours can be detected at an early stage, they are more likely to be small, and less likely to have spread.

The scanner works by identifying vascular differences between the breasts. Changes in the way the blood vessels behave can show up as 'hot spots' which could indicate a cancerous growth.

Professor Wishart said: "It looks like it is an effective test for detecting breast cancer in women up to 70, but not over 70. It really was quite poor in the over-70s."

He continued: "The proponents of infra-red imaging have always said that it's as good in younger women as it is in older women.

Regular NHS screening is not offered to younger women

"In fact, what our study shows is that it's actually more sensitive in younger women.

"In women under 50, the combination of an infra-red scan and a mammogram actually detected almost 90 per cent of the breast cancers - and that was higher than either of the tests on their own."

Private sector

There are currently only two Digital Infrared BreastScan scanners in the United Kingdom. The first was launched in July 2008 at the Breasthealth UK Clinic at the Spire Cambridge Lea Hospital.

Kate Monks decided to pay for her scan, but is adamant that the service should be available to all women in the same way as cervical smear tests are.

"Most of the things that are introduced in the UK not only have to be effective, but also cost effective," explained Professor Wishart.

"And the UK is slower than many other countries at introducing new technology."

He told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire that it seemed unlikely that new technologies or services would be introduced in the current economic climate.

Meanwhile, routine mammograms will continue to be available on the NHS only to women between the ages of 50 and 70.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women under 35 years of age.

New breast screen scan launched
02 Jul 08 |  Cambridgeshire
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