Dense Breasts? Pay Attention

Two studies examine the importance of knowing if you have dense breast tissue.

I can remember a woman I interviewed for my book, "The Breast Cancer Companion," in the early 90s. She was mad and I couldn’t blame her. She had been religious about having her mammograms, beginning at age 25, since breast cancer ran in her family. She also did breast self-exams every month. She ended up with stage 4 breast cancer at age 36 because no one told her she needed different screening for her dense breast tissue.

What’s hard to believe is that it has taken this long for researchers to figure out that dense breast tissue is a major deterrent to diagnosing breast cancer because mammography doesn't work all of the time in picking up on cancer, particularly in younger women. But they finally have.

Two studies that came out this month examine the dangers for women with dense breast tissue not being told they have dense breasts, and that mammography doesn’t work well on dense breasts. Additionally, one of the studies adds to the importance because women with dense tissue are more likely to get cancer in both breasts.

The younger the woman, the denser her breast tissue. As she ages, the tissue becomes more fatty, allowing the tumor to show up as dark against the lighter tissue on mammography. If her tissue remains dense there is a good possibility the mammography won’t detect a potential tumor. The tumor is dark and so is the tissue.

One study said that breast density was the most prevalent risk factor for the disease in the more than 200,000 women ages 40 to 74 who took part. About 40 percent of women in the United States over age 40 have dense breast tissue and need better options for screening.

The second study indicated that women with dense breast tissue have almost a two-fold increased risk of developing disease in the contralateral breast.

But for those of you with dense breast tissue, there is a challenge. While 28 states now have laws requiring you be told you have dense breasts, getting scanned with MRI, which is your option for effective screening, may or may not be possible because of accessibility. There also is the issue of cost. Most people don’t have the couple thousand of dollars lying around that it will cost if your state has not passed a law that requires insurance pay.

So, first find out if you have dense tissue. Then, see where your state is on telling you. Finally, to get help with more effective screening you can visit, http://www.areyoudenseadvocacy.org/.

Until then, know your breasts.