Breast cancer isn’t new, but the means we use to detect and study it are. Mammography, the science used to examine the breast, only began to develop its roots in the last century. Since then, the means and methods of detecting cancerous tumors have only kept changing.
It wasn’t until 1895 that x-rays were developed. In 1913, a German surgeon by the name of Alfred Salomon became the first person to try and visualize breast cancer through the use of radiology. Salomon used what was the era’s conventional x-ray machine to look over specimens from more than 3,000 mastectomies that he had performed. From this, he was able to get a better understanding of what was or wasn’t normal in breast tissue, thus establishing himself as the father of modern mammography. Salomon’s research, however, was only the beginning of the field’s development.
In 1930, Dr. Stafford L. Warren provided a breakthrough in the field. Stafford’s research supported the effectiveness of mammography as a diagnostic tool for breast cancer and further developed a stereoscopic technique for the field. Warren’s research further found that a side by side comparison of the left and right breasts could do even more to detect abnormalities, making diagnosing the disease even simpler. In 1949, Uruguayan doctor Raul Leborgne developed the compression method. A radiologist by trade, Leborgne invented a device that held the breast flat between a cone and pad while an x-ray was taken. This method allowed the x-ray to produce a better quality image overall, making the diagnosis process simpler and more accurate. Furthermore, Leborgne was the first to suggest looking for micro calcification in the breast, which refers to the appearance of small white dots that may be an early indicator of cancer developing.
The next big break in mammography came in the late 1950s, when Houston radiologist Robert Egan introduced the use of a fine-grained screen and industrial film to produce clearer images. With his team at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Egan examined images from the breasts of 1,000 women who weren’t displaying any obvious signs of cancer. Through closer examination, Egan and the other researchers found 238 cancerous masses among the results.
Mammograms became commonly accepted as a means of breast cancer detection in the 1960s, and a study conducted from 1963-1966 found that they were able to reduce deaths from breast cancer by a third. A high-definition screen developed in 1972 provided x-ray technicians with much sharper images. Twenty years later, Congress enacted the Mammography Quality Standards Act, ensuring that all women could access proper breast cancer care whenever necessary.
The field has continued to grow. As recently as last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found 3D technology excelled at finding cancer over the traditional mammogram. It’s tough to say what the coming years will bring, but it’s almost a certainty there will be more to come.