Karen Edelmann’s Doberman, Apollo, developed an odd habit several months ago. He started nudging Edelmann beneath her left breast. Never her right breast, always her left and in the same spot each time. “The first time he did it, he jumped back as if something has scared him,” she said.
Apollo kept returning to her, prodding her left breast in this spot several times a week for about a month. Edelmann paid a visit to Dr. Ian Grady at North Valley Breast Clinic in California. She had had a recent mammogram and it came back normal. But Apollo’s insistence made her concerned.
Edelmann is one of approximately 40 percent of women with dense breasts. Breast density is a measurement of the amount of fatty tissue versus the amount of fibrous connective tissue in the breast. The more fibrous tissue there is, the denser the breast tissue is and the whiter it will look on a mammogram. Both cancer and dense tissue show up white on a mammogram, so looking for tumors in women with dense breasts can be like looking for a snowball in a snowstorm. Because of this, mammography may miss over one-third of cancers in dense breasts.
Women with dense breasts also have a four to six times greater chance of developing breast cancer over their peers who have minimal or no dense breast tissue, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Furthermore, over 70 percent of breast cancers occur in dense breasts.
A mammogram confirmed Edelmann’s breast density, so Dr. Grady ordered a 3D automated breast ultrasound exam on a GE Invenia ABUS, designed specifically to image women with dense breasts. It is the only FDA-approved ultrasound technology for screening women with dense breasts. A recent University of Chicago study found a 29 percent improvement in detection when ABUS was used alongside a mammogram.
The exam takes about 15 minutes, and the machine generates 3D images of the entire breast to help clearly differentiate between cancer and dense tissue.
A day after her exam, Edelmann learned that she had Stage 1 breast cancer in the very spot where Apollo had nudged. “If she hadn’t come in when she did, the tumor would’ve continued to grow and eventually would’ve been palpable,” Dr. Grady said. “By that time, it could have been Stage 2 or more and required a much more aggressive treatment.”
With early detection, Edelmann was able to avoid chemotherapy and had a shortened radiation schedule. “They wouldn’t have found my cancer without the automated ultrasound,” she said.
She also might not have had an automated ultrasound without Apollo. Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. Additionally, a dog’s brain possesses the ability to analyze smells 40 times more intricately than the human brain. Cancerous cells release different metabolic waste products than healthy cells, creating a smell that some dogs might be able to detect.
Certainly, Apollo has earned a few extra treats this month.