NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – An innovative new way to test breast cancer drugs is trying to improve early stage detection by trying medications before women have surgery.

It’s called I-SPY 2 and it’s a very different approach to testing cancer drugs.

A tumor might be found during a doctor’s exam, or a woman may find it herself. Most often, it’s a mammogram that finds cancer. For Vidya Balakrishna, the news was what she feared.

“I had a triple negative breast cancer, five and a half centimeter tumor,” Balakrishna told CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez.

Patients like Vidya are at high risk for their cancer to spread, so they normally go right to surgery followed by numerous rounds of chemotherapy. The trouble with that approach is it can take years to tell if a new drug is helping prevent a return or spread of the cancer because the original tumor is gone.

A better way may be to try drugs before surgery.

“Starting with chemotherapy first, by doing so we can get that early marker, that response, by the time we go to the operating room,” Dr. Laura Esserman from the University of California, San Francisco said.

That’s the core of the I-SPY 2 protocol that was described at a news conference in Washington Wednesday.

Doctors can tell if drugs are working by using a very precise MRI technique to measure whether the tumor shrinks. If it doesn’t, they know that particular tumor isn’t sensitive to that drug or drug combination.

“We want to find the right drug for the right person at the right time,” Dr. Esserman added.

Not only will I-SPY find drugs that work more quickly, it will also quickly weed out drugs that don’t work so that other promising drugs can be tested. By matching drugs against tumors based on the cancer’s biochemical and genetic profile, women will also be spared drugs that don’t work.