Skip to Content

NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.

Healthy You

ABUS: Cancer screening for women with dense breasts

Friday, January 05, 2024 8:59 AM

By Endeavor Health

Mammography is the gold standard for screening and is known to reduce mortality due to breast cancer. However, it cannot detect all cancers.

“When a woman has dense breast tissue, both that tissue and the cancer appear white on a mammogram,” explains Georgia Spear, MD, Division Chief of the Department of Breast Imaging at NorthShore University HealthSystem, part of Endeavor Health. “This makes it difficult to find cancer in women with dense breast tissue.”

Approximately 40% of women have dense breast tissue. This matters because breast density increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. “Screening is imperative because we want to find cancers early and give women the best chance at a long, good quality life,” says Dr. Spear.

Woman in hospital gown

That’s where ABUS* comes in. ABUS, which stands for automated whole-breast ultrasound, is a secondary screening modality specifically for women with dense breasts.

ABUS captures breast tissue in its entirety in a 3D image, allowing radiologists to see the breast in three different planes and giving them an advantage in finding cancers.

Approximately seven years ago, NorthShore University Health System pioneered the ABUS screening program spearheaded by Dr. Spear. NorthShore has the highest volume ABUS practice in the world and is one of the first institutions to use AI to help radiologists find cancer in ABUS images.

“We can find small areas of abnormality that are not seen on mammograms in women with dense breasts,” explains Dr. Spear. “We utilize ABUS to circumvent that limitation and find breast cancers early when they're treatable.”

Does this mean ABUS should replace the mammogram?

“All of the imaging tools we use have their unique advantages, and mammography is still the gold standard,” says Dr. Spear. “We just want to identify the population of women who will benefit from additional screening tools.”

Because identifying women with dense breast tissue is so important, Dr. Spear helped pass the 2019 Dense Breast Notification Law in Illinois, which mandates that a radiologist must tell all patients what their tissue type is.

“We want patients to understand what their breast tissue type is so that they can ask their physicians about any additional imaging tools they might require,” says Dr. Spear.

In 2024, an FDA mandate will make breast notification accessible nationwide.

Dr. Spear is also passionate about providing increased access to ABUS screening to the LatinX community. Some studies have shown that Hispanic women tend to have more dense breast tissue than white or Black women.

To expand health equity, Dr. Spear helped pass a 2020 Illinois law that requires diagnostic mammography to be paid for as part of wellness. She is currently advocating for the Find It Early Act in Congress to create that equity on a national level.

“It's important to provide equitable care for all women in whatever way we can,” she says. “If we acknowledge that barriers exist and target them, we can get more women screened and find breast cancer early.”

*Medicare patients should check their individual coverage regarding ABUS screening.

Learn more about breast health.

Breast cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. The cancer experts at NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center will partner with you every step of the way. Learn more.

NorthShore University HealthSystem, Swedish Hospital, Northwest Community Healthcare and Edward-Elmhurst Health are now united under one name, Endeavor Health. We’re setting a new standard for healthcare that’s focused on you, because your best health is our endeavor. Learn more.