Now, a new large-scale study shows that a 3-D screening method called digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) is significantly better at detecting the potentially fatal disease. It's also less painful than mammography -- the breast doesn't have to be compressed as much -- and exposes women to less radiation.
"Our study is unique since it is the only population-based trial that investigates breast tomosynthesis alone compared to mammography, and our first results are really striking," Dr. Sophia Zackrisson, a radiologist at Lund University in Sweden and one of the researchers behind the new study, says in a video describing the research (above).
Flat versus 3D. For the study, the researchers recruited 7,500 women between the ages of 40 and 74 and screened them for breast cancer using both traditional two-view mammography and one-view DBT.
Whereas traditional mammography produces one flat image of the breast -- which can obscure tumors -- DBT produces X-ray images from multiple angles, which allows doctors to see a layered image of the breast. In addition, one-view DBT uses a lower radiation dose compared to two-view mammography.
What was found? Together, the screening methods detected breast cancer in 68 women. Twenty-one of those cases were identified only by DBT, while one of the cases was identified only by mammography. Overall, DBT found more than 40 percent more breast tumors compared to mammography.
One downside was that the DBT yielded a slightly higher recall rate, meaning more cancer-free women had to be called in for additional tests. Previous research has found that DBT lowers recall rates when used in conjunction with traditional mammography.
The researchers called for further studies to investigate the technique's rate of overdiagnosis.
What's the takeaway? "While it's not too early to recommend DBT, it is still not yet the standard of care for women," Dr. Yiming Gao, a breast imaging specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, who was not involved in the new research, told The Huffington Post in an email. "A five-year study is underway to tease out who may benefit the most from DBT, so until then, women should discuss with their physicians whether or not they are an ideal candidate for the scan."
Though DBT has not been widely adopted, it is available alongside other screening techniques at many U.S. hospitals.
"It is not too bold to believe that DBT can be used in combination or even replace mammography in breast cancer screening in 5 to 10 years from now," Kristina Lång, a Ph.D. candidate at Lund University, told The Huffington Post in an email.
Breast cancer remains the most common cancer in women, and the second deadliest, according to the CDC. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 40,290 women in the U.S. will die from breast cancer in 2015.
The research was published online on May 1, 2015 in the journal European Radiology.
This article has been updated with additional information from the researchers about differences in radiation exposures and recall rates between the two methods.