Just three days before Breast Cancer Awareness month started on Oct. 1, Emmy Award winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus stamped her celebrity status on the disease, announcing that she has breast cancer.

“One in eight women get breast cancer. Today, I’m the one,” the actress wrote on social media.

Though the actress gave no details about her prognosis, Chicago area specialists say technological advances are enabling breast cancer detection earlier than ever and allowing more precise treatments to fight its progress.

Specialists still recommend that women start getting mammograms at age 40 and do so each year after that.

Breast cancer occurs when malignant cancer cells form in breast tissues.

“It’s all about early detection,” said Dr. Karen Hou, a breast radiologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in west suburban Winfield. “The goal of screening is to find cancers early while the disease is most treatable and the outcome is best. Being proactive gives you the best chance of staying well.”

Dr. David Schacht, section chief for breast imaging at U Chicago (University of Chicago) Medicine, said the latest technologies can detect very small problems that doctors can more easily treat, resulting in better patient outcomes.

“You want to be able to detect the disease before it presents itself clinically with symptoms,” he said.

The new technologies include 3D mammography, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and automated whole breast ultrasound.

The 3D mammography takes 15 to 20 low-dose X-ray images of the breast, rather than a single image. The 3D images let specialists see the breast tissue in 1-millimeter-thick slices to best show signs of cancer that normal dense tissue can mask.

The test takes about the same amount of time to do as the standard 2D mammogram.

Yet even 3D mammograms may not be detailed enough for the up to 50 percent of women who have dense breasts.

Another test is automated breast ultrasound, which is done in addition to the regular mammogram. The exam uses high-frequency sound waves and produces a 3D image of the entire breast.

The tests take less than half the time of traditional ultrasounds and aren’t as dependent on the operator’s expertise, experts say.

Dr. David Schacht, Section Chief for Breast Imaging at U Chicago Medicine, reviews 3-D mammogram images. | U Chicago photo

Yet Schacht cautioned that the ultrasound results in more false positive test results, so women must consider whether they want to undergo more imaging and potentially more biopsies in exchange for the increased cancer detection capability.

The University of Chicago is among several research centers studying whether breast MRIs might prove most effective — and superior to 3D mammograms — in finding early signs of breast cancer. The results are at least two years away, Schacht said.

More technology is on the way.

A local startup company is nearing commercial sales of technology that its founder says elicits a more detailed map than does existing machinery of a woman’s breast tissues and any deformities hidden within.

The aim of using Metritrack’s Breast Volume Navigator is to find small cancers quickly to provide the most efficient treatment, said Calin Caluser, Metritrack’s founder and former chairman of Stroger Hospital’s breast imaging department.

“Finding small cancers can save lives,” he said. “Even newer technologies such as ultrasound and 3D mammography still miss lesions, especially in women with dense breasts.”

The Breast Volume Navigator technology uses tiny magnetic sensors placed at specific places — at a nipple, for example — to offer precision mapping that a doctor can use to diagnose the disease.

The breakthrough, now being tested in clinical trials at Evanston Hospital of NorthShore University HealthSystem and the Provita Hospital in Bucharest, Romania, could save thousands of lives and billions a year nationwide in false-positive exams, unnecessary biopsies and other medical tests, said Caluser, whose mother suffered from breast cancer.

Caluser said he hopes the technology can be implemented for the general public within six months.

Here’s how it works:

• The technology combines position data from tiny magnetic sensors with images from a breast ultrasound probe to create a map of the breast. The images enable precision mapping that doctors need to make correct diagnoses.

• The mapping is designed to show a more precise view of the whole breast, to prevent missing cancers, than does today’s ultrasound or 3D mammography or both combined, Caluser said.

“The future of breast cancer screening is using a combination of images from mammography, ultrasound, MRIs and other technologies to get a precise diagnosis,” Caluser said.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.