‘A new way of looking at breast cancer’ | TheUnion.com
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‘A new way of looking at breast cancer’

A $2 million machine at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital is one of the latest high-tech tools used in the battle against a disease that will kill more than 40,000 American women this year.

The magnetic resonance imaging machine was installed last November when the hospital opened its new Imaging Center. It specializes in detecting breast cancer, which it did for one of its earliest users, Leslie Wallace (read about her in the companion story).

“It’s a new way of looking at breast cancer and doesn’t involve low-dose radiation as in x-rays and mammograms,” said Dr. Martin Engel, a local radiologist who utilizes the MRI.



“We use breast MRI to help surgeons plan breast cancer surgery, because it shows the extent of the tumor better than mammography and ultrasound,” Engel said. “It can also show tumors in other parts of the breast or in the second breast.”

Added Pat Donnelly, the hospital’s breast imaging coordinator, “The mammogram is still the gold standard” for detecting breast cancer.




The breast MRI does not have enough clinical studies to discern how much it detects and how many patients it saves. But Engel suspects it eventually will be high because of the MRI’s sensitivity for finding tumors.

The machine uses a powerful magnetic field, radio waves and a computer to get detailed images.

“It gives us early detection, which showed up in Wallace’s case when the mammogram was not able to demonstrate it,” Donnelly said.

A mammogram would have shown the tumor later, but it might have been until some years down the road because of the density of Wallace’s breast. As with all cancer, the earlier the detection, the better, she said.

The MRI procedure is expensive, time-consuming and not recommended for pregnant women, because it is unknown what the device’s ultra-powerful magnets might do to a fetus, Donnelly said.

But it is being used more often for people such as Wallace, who have a long history of cancer within their families. Advancing age and the identification of certain mutant genes in a patient also call for the MRI, Engel said.

The MRI also can be used to receive better images of a tumor found in a routine mammogram and view it in three dimensions.

The machine also is known for taking better breast images of women with implants, which can block a mammogram, Engel said.

A woman getting a breast MRI lays face down, with her breasts falling into cushioned openings surrounded by coils for the image taking. A technician outside of the room directs the patient through the procedure, which may last up to 90 minutes.

Some patients don’t like the machine because it makes them claustrophobic, Donnelly said. Others with back pain, confusion or anxiety may have trouble maintaining still for the several minutes at a time needed for images.

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To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@the union.com or call 477-4237.

WHAT: Paint the Town Pink, for the women of Nevada County, with proceeds going to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s battle against breast cancer.

WHEN: 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday.

WHERE: Nevada County Fairgrounds, main building.

ADMISSION: The Union, Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Gift Shop, Bella Rosa Bed and Breakfast and at the door. Tickets are $25 in advance and $18 apiece if you buy 10 or more. Tickets are $30 at the door.

INFORMATION: Call Tara Walters at 477-4254 at The Union.


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