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Digital mammography reaches Worthington

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe X-ray manager Robyn Funk stands near the new digital mammography unit at Avera Worthington Specialty Clinics.

WORTHINGTON -- "Lift your chin a bit -- now turn your head toward me a little more. That's it. That looks great."

The radiologic technician is directive but reassuring as she positions her patient, a woman in her mid-40s, for her annual mammogram.

And because of the sharper image afforded by new digital mammography equipment, local patients can be even more confident that making the effort to have an annual exam is well worth their time.

"This is state-of-the-art technology and gives the radiologist the best view possible," stated Robyn Funk, lab and X-ray manager at Avera Worthington Specialty Clinics.

In late December, Avera invested in its own, on-site digital mammography machine, and Funk is not alone in singing its praises.

"With digital mammography, the image is immediately seen on a high resolution computer monitor at our work station for the radiologist to read," said Funk.

"The image is clearer, it can be rotated and viewed from different angles, it shows more contrasts and you can pass images to radiologists or other doctors via the computer instead of carrying films from place to place."

Sanford Clinic Worthington began offering digital mammography in June 2010, using a mobile unit that visits Worthington about five days a month.

"We offer our services to both the clinic and the hospital," said Julie Hanisch, director of the Sanford Breast Health Institute, which oversees breast services for Sanford's Worthington locations. "Based on studies, digital mammography is better for breast cancer detection in women with dense breast tissue and in women under age 50."

With current statistics showing that one in eight women will suffer from breast cancer at some point in her life, and with breast cancer being the second most common cause of cancer-related death in women, the importance of monitoring one's own breast health and making annual clinical breast exams and mammograms a priority once a woman is 40 cannot be overstated.

"Catching cancer at an early age gives you more treatment options, and more treatment options will enhance survivorship," Hanisch said.

"Our physicians think it's very important for women over 40 to have an annual mammogram," Funk said.

The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure all recommend regular mammograms for women beginning at age 40, combined with monthly breast self-awareness and annual clinical breast exams.

Digital mammography, according to the National Cancer Society, detects 15 to 28 percent more breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue and in those younger than 50.

While women may not notice a great deal of difference between their mammogram experience with the older analog machines versus the new digital mammography, Funk reported her two full-time, certified technicians, Linda Smith and Dawn McComas, say patients are nevertheless finding the new machine a little more user-friendly.

"The procedure doesn't change all that much for the patient -- there is still compression of the breast -- but possibly not for quite as long, and patients don't need to hold their breath or hold quite as still with the new machine," Funk said.

"For the physician, the main benefit of digital mammography is the ability to manipulate the image," Hanisch said. "They can zoom in or zoom out, adjust the brightness or contrast as necessary to get the best possible view."

Funk said she and her staff had been pushing for digital mammography at Avera Worthington Specialty Clinics for the past few years, so they were delighted when Avera was able to bring the service to the Worthington clinic on a permanent basis right around Christmas.

Digital mammography had been the rule at Sanford's Sioux Falls, S.D., facilities since 2006, Hanisch explained, but she said the machines are "very expensive" and Sanford began phasing the digital machines into the majority of Sanford's outreach sites just this past summer.

"Our main goal is to provide access to patients close to where they live," Hanisch stated. "We want to provide the best technology possible closest to home for our patients."

"We want our patients to be aware this technology is available," Hanisch added. "and that they should get mammograms consistently so a radiologist can monitor any changes in their breast tissue from year to year."

Storage -- rather, the diminishing need for it -- is another advantage digital mammography gives health care providers.

"We had to keep all the X-ray films [of mammograms] for seven to 10 years," Funk said. "We have a whole room dedicated to storage of X-rays and films, and we'll still keep that, but now the new mammograms can be stored on the computer and on CDs, so that helps with storage issues."

Hanisch stressed that knowing one's family history when it comes to breast cancer is strongly advised, but women should not be deceived into thinking they are immune to the risk if they do not have a mother, aunt or sister who has had suffered from it.

"Up to 80 percent of women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease," noted Hanisch. "That makes it all the more important for women to have regular mammograms."

Mammograms using digital mammography are available by appointment Monday through Friday at Avera Worthington Specialty Clinics (507-372-2921), and by appointment five days a month at Sanford Clinic Worthington (507-372-3800).