Ask Veronica James to describe a mammogram, and she won't mince words. "They're dreadful," she replies. "Imagine your breast being pulled forward and squashed between two plates. It's one thing for people who have no other problem, but for people who've just had radiation therapy, it is excruciating." For that reason James, a biophysicist at the Australian National University in Canberra, is hoping that screening women for breast cancer may one day involve nothing more than plucking a single pubic hair. She's found that hair from breast cancer patients has a different molecular structure than hair from women without the disease.
By bouncing X-rays off pubic hair samples--which are less likely to be damaged from perming or dyeing--James found that hair from women with breast cancer produced a distinctive set of rings in the pattern of scattered X-rays. She believes that the alteration may be due to structural changes in the "glue" that binds hair filaments. Although she can't predict when a simple hair test will be available, its benefits, if effective at catching all cases, would be profound. Mammograms miss about 25 percent of breast cancers in women in their forties and 10 percent in women over 50.