Friday, November 14, 2008

Boob Radar

Photo by Flickr user Dave Pearson, used under a Creative Commons license.

One reason I've been quiet the past couple of days is that I've been squandering loads time on the phone arguing about a rejected medical claim. As I mentioned briefly last summer, I had a mysterious little blob turn up on a mammogram in spring 2007. I got lots more mammograms plus a total of three MRIs at half-year intervals. Insurance won't cover the last MRI unless they get more documentation from the doctors. Right now, I owe $3200 unless (until!! let's think positively) my insurer steps up and covers the exam.

I know, I know. I'm very lucky to even have an insurance company to wrangle with.

The MRI really was medically necessary. It's better than a mammogram in evaluating "dense breast tissue." I would like to say that I've got these fabulous dense, firm, perky hooters and that's why the MRI was needed. But in fact, this says nothing about my hawtness; dense tissue is linked with "youth" and in the universe of mammograms, I'm just a babe - chronologically, that is.

The MRI really did provide superior information in my case. It showed that my blob was regular in shape and that it wasn't growing, both of which suggested it wasn't malign. The last time I had an MRI in June, it showed that the blob had in fact disappeared. (Most likely, the blob was some kind of inflammatory process in a cyst. Yes, I realize I was lucky.) A biopsy might have provided the same information, but biopsies can be pretty painful, and the blob was small enough that it would have been hard to locate.

So, both medically and psychologically, the MRI accomplished what a mammogram couldn't. I've stopped worrying about the blob. I feel a whole lot less alienated from my body.

But. The MRI costs roughly ten times more than a mammogram, which is why insurance demands justification.

Let's dream a moment. What if we had an imaging technology that offered the sensitivity of an MRI at the cost of a mammogram but without the radiation exposure? That's just what researchers at the University of Bristol hope to develop. They've come up with a new approach to boob-a-vision. And it's based on ... radar.
Professor Alan Preece and Dr Ian Craddock from the University of Bristol have been working for a number of years to develop a breast-imaging device which uses radio waves and therefore has no radiation risk unlike conventional mammograms.

The team began developing and researching a prototype around five years ago ... [Dr. Craddock says:] "This new imaging technique works by transmitting radio waves of a very low energy and detecting reflected signals, it then uses these signals to make a 3D image of the breast. This is basically the same as any radar system, such as the radars used for air traffic control at our airports." ...

Mike Shere, Associate Specialist Breast Clinician at NBT [North Bristol NHS Trust], added: ... "It takes less time to operate than a mammogram approximately six minutes for both breasts compared with 30-45 minutes for an MRI, and like an MRI it provides a very detailed 3D digital image.

"Women love it as they compare it to a mammogram and find the whole experience much more comfortable."

The radar breast imaging system is built using transmitters and receivers arranged around a ceramic cup, which the breast sits in. These transmitters view the breast from several different angles. ...

Professor Preece from the University's Medical Physics, said ... "Using this engineering knowledge we built the machine using ground penetrating radar, a similar technique to land mine detection to take four hundred quarter of a second pictures of the breast to form a 3D image.

"Women do not feel any sensation and it equates to the same type of radiation exposure as speaking into a mobile phone at arms length which makes it much safer."

More testing remains to be done. The next round of studies will focus on young women (us of the dense, perky breasts!) and look at whether boob radar is as sensitive as other methods. But the researchers are optimistic about both the scientific and the economic utility of this technology. They think it can be produced cheaply on a mass scale.

Wouldn't it be cool if radio imaging replaced mammograms? I already discussed the cost and precision factors. Negligible radiation exposure would be a huge point in its favor, too. I know that the medical establishment always reassures us that the risk from mammograms is minimal. But as someone who's now been exposed at a very young age to several mammograms per year with lots of extra views taken, I'm uneasy. We were told that CT scans were safe, too, but recent research seems to indicate considerably greater risks than originally claimed, especially where kids are concerned.

I don't suppose the inventors will pay me any heed, but I vote for the name "boob radar" for this new technology. Both words are palindromes. What's not to love?

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