Two Hawaii researchers are studying low-radiation scanning normally used to measure bone density as an alternative to mammograms.
The focus is on how the breast develops before age 40, when women typically begin mammograms, said Dr. Gertraud Maskarinec, an epidemiology professor at the University of Hawaii’s Cancer Research Center.
"We believe breast cancer is determined early in life," she said in an interview.
The low-radiation method could help to identify young women who have risks for breast cancer without mammograms and unnecessary radiation exposure, Maskarinec said.
Maskarinec and Dr. Rachel Novotny, a professor of human nutrition, food and animal sciences in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, conducted a study on 101 women 30 and older with normal mammograms and 113 daughters ages 10 to 16.
The women were recruited by Kaiser Permanente.
Maskarinec, who reported the findings recently at an annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., said many breast cancer researchers are studying adolescents because of nutrition issues.
In the study, risk factors for breast cancer were identified by both methods with similar efficiency, Maskarinec said.
"What happens in 20 or 30 years of life might play an important role in hormone levels and other things that happen in the breast and risk later for breast cancer," Maskarinec said.
Maskarinec and Novotny delved into the issue because of studies published suggesting women who ate soy food as children have better protection against breast cancer than women who eat it only as adults.
They scanned breasts with a process called dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, and also by mammogram and compared the results, Maskarinec said. The daughters also had a DXA scan.
The DXA machine is calibrated to distinguish two types of tissue, either bone or soft tissue, Maskarinec explained.
"We looked at the daughters’ scans and mothers’ scans to see if they are related," she said, adding that those results are not available yet.
The women also filled out questionnaires asking about ethnicity, medical information, reproductive factors, body weight and other factors.
Mammographic breast density is associated with breast cancer and has been used as a biomarker for evaluating breast cancer risk among adult women.
The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program.