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What I Learned about the Future of Breast Cancer Detection from Joining a Clinical Trial

16 Jun
Helping other women lets me get in touch with my inner goddess (thank you, Wikimedia Commons and the ancient Minoan culture!)

Helping other women lets me get in touch with my inner goddess (thank you, Wikimedia Commons and the ancient Minoan culture!)

Because I just love living dangerously, I am a card-carrying member of the Sloan-Kettering Special Surveillance Program for women who are at a high risk of breast cancer. That means that every six months, as I did yesterday, I pop in to the famous cancer hospital for a mammo or an MRI and a little hands-on quality time with the wonderful Dr. Mangino who runs the program. I call it my Semi-Annual Sloan-Kettering Day of Beauty.  I’m lucky, because I still don’t actually have cancer. And anyway, today I want to tell a happy story. It’s a story about how I got to see the future of medicine.

One of the benefits of being an “interesting” patient who has the good luck to be treated at a teaching hospital is that I have the opportunity to be asked to participate in clinical trials. Last winter, before I went to my last S-K day of beauty, I was asked if I would, in addition to getting my usual MRI, get a special kind of mammogram for this study:

https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01716247

“Comparison of Contrast Enhanced Mammography to Breast MRI in Screening Patients at Increased Risk for Breast Cancer.”

According to the information provided by Sloan-Kettering via the National Institutes of Health, the purpose of the study is “to determine if Contrast Enhanced Spectral Mammography (CESM) will be able to detect smaller/earlier breast cancers as well as breast MRI can.”

What that meant was that instead of just having a plain mammogram, I had an IV needle placed in my hand filled with a special dye. As it circulated into my breasts, it made the contrast between different types of tissue clearer.

Honestly, except for the slight annoyance of the initial pinprick and the tangle of the IV line, it wasn’t a big deal at all. And after it was over, a young scientist working on the study spent time talking to me and showing me some of the preliminary results of the study. He showed me pictures of regular mammograms and contrast-guided mammograms. The results were remarkably different. It looked as if the different areas of tissue were limned in dark gray in the contrast-guided mammos, whereas the regular ones looked much more pale and indistinct. I felt sorry for radiologists who had the terrifying—but boring-looking—job of trying to find suspicious pieces of matter on such a vague field of off white. It looked very easy to miss a cancerous lump in such cases. After I saw that result last winter, I went home feeling very pleased that I had been part of something bigger, something that might be useful someday.

And yesterday, I was even more pleased, because the lovely Dr. Mangino told me that the next time I came, I would be getting a contrast-dye mammogram for real. “The study results are looking great,” she said. “I wasn’t convinced at first. But I’m impressed.” At the front desk, the young receptionist told me that Sloan-Kettering is still one of the few places—if not the only place—in the nation where contrast-enhanced mammograms are done. Yet. But if they’re as good as they look as if they are, they’ll be coming. And when they do, they’ll save lives. And I’ll know I did at least a tiny little bit to help.

Do you have any interest in joining a clinical trial of any sort? You can find out more at ClinicalTrials.gov.