This Device Might Help Find Signs of Breast Cancer—but Do You Really Need It?
I asked doctors what they really think about the Pink Luminous Breast–and then I tried it myself.
We’re all afraid of breast cancer. Let’s get that out in the open right off the bat. It's understandable, considering that breast cancer is the leading type of cancer and the second-highest cause of cancer death (after lung cancer) in women.
Naturally, most of us want to do whatever we can to lower our risk of breast cancer or to catch it early, when it’s easiest to treat. That goal has fueled years of debate over when women should start going for regular mammograms and how often to get them. Personally, after years of reporting on breast cancer screening and other medical exams, I'm leery of looking too hard for something—a concept experts call over-testing, which can lead to over-diagnosis.
Now, there's an at-home device that supposedly can give women even more information about their boobs. The device, called the Pink Luminous Breast, is kind of like a high-tech flashlight. When a woman presses it against her skin, a red LED light illuminates her breast tissue. With your boob aglow, you’re supposed to be able to spot clusters of new blood vessels (called angiogenesis) which can, in some cases, be a sign of possible cancer. Should a women spot shadows or clusters when using the device, she can bring that information to a doctor to see if her breasts warrant further testing.
"We want to inspire an awareness lifestyle,” says Pink Luminous Breast founder Marylin Dans. After having a nodule in her breast removed at age 17, she’s always been extra careful with her breast health, she explains. “I think you should keep it next to your electric toothbrush, turn off the lights, and check yourself every so often. It motivates you to do more self-exams and allows you to feel a little more secure.”
But doctors are skeptical. “I don’t think too many radiologists would recommend this as any sort of screening method,” says Janna Andrews, MD, a breast and gynecological cancer specialist and assistant clinical professor of radiation medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York. Because it’s categorized as a class one medical device by the FDA, it can be sold without the stringent clinical testing required of medical devices that can actually diagnosis or treat a condition, Dr. Andrews explains. “We don’t have any evidence of its efficacy or how it compares to mammography,” she says.
If illuminating your breast did turn up abnormalities, you'd still need a mammogram to know what those irregularities mean. “This is not under the guidance of anybody who is trained,” says Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at Orlando Health Hospital in Florida. If everything looks all-clear with the device, you might be tempted to skip a visit to the doctor. “It may give a false sense of security," she says. "I wouldn’t want anybody to miss anything.”
The device could also cause unnecessary concern. “Clinical breast exams are no longer encouraged because of false positives,” Dr. Andrews explains. Monthly breast exams find too many suspicious lumps that turn out to be nothing to worry about. “I have to think that something like this could potentially lead to more false positives as well.”
Instead, experts recommend sticking to routine mammograms and getting familiar with your breasts the old fashioned way–with your hands. If you feel a lump or notice other changes in your breasts, it’s always worth bringing up with a professional. “If you notice something is feeling a little different than it always has, you can inform your doctor about that,” Dr. Greves says. “Just be aware of your breasts so you can be the first one to know if there’s a change.”
The Pink Luminous Breast website says the device “is intended to be a breast health familiarity assistance tool,” something that could help you in the process of getting to know your girls. Personally, I don't see the need to spend $149 on a breast health familiarity assistance tool when I have two hands, but Dans disagrees. “I feel awkward doing it—it’s weird to touch yourself,” she says. “What Pink does is it gives you the ability to use a second sense—your eyes—and look underneath your skin.”
I decided to give it a hesitant try. After charging the device for a few minutes, I turned off the lights in my bathroom and bumped up the brightness on the Pink Luminous Breast.
The resulting sorta-creepy red illumination made me feel like I was a passenger on Ms. Frizzle's Magic School Bus. I checked out a few different vantage points, pausing as I looked at shadowy veins, all of which seemed pretty normal to me. Still, I found myself becoming a little queasy about peering into my body so intimately. So I powered down the device, feeling more awkward about looking at blood vessels than I do about feeling myself up.
I still have more than a decade to decide when to have my first mammogram. But a mammogram—or at least an appointment with a doctor—is the only way to figure out what to do with the information gleaned from using the Pink Luminous Breast. Trying it out left me wondering what would have happened if I was more of a worrier about my breast cancer risk. Would I have booked an appointment for the following day?
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In most women with an average risk of breast cancer, screening doesn’t start until at least age 40 and sometimes later. But Pink Luminous Breast’s website says women over 25 should start using the device. “Even in a woman with a very high risk of breast cancer, we typically don’t recommend starting screening before age 30,” Dr. Andrews says. That’s because women in their 20s have just a 0.1% risk of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years, according to the American Cancer Society. For women in their 30s, that number rises to just 0.5%. Younger women also have denser breasts, which might obscure the view. “I would have to think it would not be as effective in dense breasts,” Dr. Andrews says.
For now, I'm sticking to old-fashioned, device-free breast familiarity. Both Dr. Andrews and Dr. Greves expressed gratitude that Pink Luminous Breast wants to help women, but they didn't think it built a strong enough case to ignore current standards of care just yet. Bottom line, says Dr. Greves: “We can’t recommend or endorse a product that’s not fully regulated or FDA approved.”