Why does knowing my breast density matter?
Why breast density is a unique risk factor
It is well established that dense breasts both hide cancers on a mammogram and increase a woman's risk for developing the disease. Yet, while all other common risk factors (e.g. personal/medical history, family history, lifestyle) are ones which a woman can inform her doctor of, breast density is the only one her doctor must inform her of.
Either breast screening is important or it's not. And, if it is, an informed patient and appropriate screening are particularly important for those who are both at greater risk of developing breast cancer and of having that cancer missed by mammography. In order to have these
“informed” conversations, those facing this “double risk” need to know. A woman cannot participate in discussions about her own breast health surveillance in the absence of enough information to do so.
My own story became the inspiration for New York State’s breast density inform law which went into effect in January 2013. It was the first U.S. state to require that women be informed, in clear unambiguous language, if their breast tissue is dense. As of this writing, 34 U.S. states, encompassing over 84% of American women, now require some level of breast density reporting to a patient after her mammogram.
Do all “inform” laws provide the same information?
No. While the majority of states have enacted such laws, the laws vary and the existence of a law in a state does not necessarily mean a patient will be informed if they have dense breasts. There is no consistency from state to state on what the laws require women be told about breast density. In fact, some density inform laws only require a woman be provided general information about breast density without providing her information as to whether she has dense breasts. Click here for an interactive map and learn what is required by state.
What about a national standard for reporting density to all women?
Because the laws vary from state to state, after work on my own state bill in New York, I initiated efforts on the federal level for a single national standard. A national reporting standard would mean all women in the U.S., no matter where they live, would receive the same level of information about their breast density. This can happen either through federal regulation or federal legislation and efforts have been initiated on both. On the federal legislative front, the Breast Density and Mammography Reporting Act of 2017 has been introduced in both the Senate (S 2006) and the House (HR 4122). On the federal regulatory level, the Federal Drug Administration anticipates publishing proposed amendments to the Mammography Quality Standards Act (MQSA) regulations. For more information on U.S. federal efforts, click HERE.
After enactment of the New York law I began to hear from women and their health care providers with questions about the implications of dense tissue. To address these questions, I co-founded a medically-sourced website, DenseBreast-info.org. For comprehensive information on the topic, please visit.
© 2018, JoAnn Pushkin
JoAnn Pushkin, Executive Director of DenseBreast-info.org, is a patient/advocate, author and speaker. Her initiative and advocacy served as inspiration for New York State's breast density inform law which went into effect in January 2013. On the federal level, Ms. Pushkin led the efforts for both the introduction of the Federal Breast Density and Mammography Reporting Act, as well as the FDA’s Mammography Quality Standards Act regulatory amendment consideration.
Prof Gelareh Farshid from SA Pathology was the moderator.
The audience was invited to vote "yes" or "no" to the question "Breast density - Should we tell the women?" on the conference App before the debate started. Each speaker had 4 minutes to state their case, and once all speakers had presented, the audience was invited to comment on their own perspective or ask questions of the speakers. Following the discussion, the audience was again invited to vote on the same question.
The against team argued that there was no clear evidence that density inform would benefit women, but there was clear evidence that it could cause harms, such as false positives associated with supplementary screening. They argued that without a clear direction for what women can do about high breast density, providing them with this information will cause anxiety and this is also considered a harm, These points are outlined in the BreastScreen Australia and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists position statements published in 2016. The team in favour of density inform argued that full disclosure is an obligation of Australian medical practice, that withholding information damages patient trust, and that the Western Australia policy of density inform has not resulted in the harms and anxiety that many may have feared, and could be used as a foundation on which to build a national policy.
Keen to know more about breast density but don't want to wade through a bunch of technical papers? Well, we have the solution! This lecture by INFORMD member A/Prof Wendy Ingman, from the University of Adelaide, covers pretty much everything you want to know about breast density - what it is, what is the association with cancer, why it hides cancers on a mammogram, and the current Australian position on breast density.
The lecture was made for McGrath Breast Care Nurses and is part of a series of lectures on the McGrath Foundation eLearning platform which has received CPD accreditation from the Australian College of Nursing. The McGrath Foundation have kindly agreed to let InforMD share the lecture online so anyone wanting to learn about breast density can do so from the comfort of their own home. So grab a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy!
Please be aware that since the lecture was filmed in May 2017, there have been some changes to the BreastScreen WA information on breast density. The updated information for women can be found here, and the updated information for GPs can be found here. A significant change is the addition of the following statement to the information for GPs regarding supplementary screening for women with dense breasts "Women at intermediate risk of breast cancer due to a family history, a personal history of breast cancer, or other risk factors including premalignant lesions such as lobular neoplasia may benefit from regular supplemental whole breast ultrasound."
Apparently I was lucky! Of course, to be diagnosed with cancer was a huge shock. However, what was clear was that without supplemental screening ultrasound, my tumour would not have been detected. Unfortunately, ultrasound is not offered in the national screening programme in the UK unless a woman presents symptoms. My next screening mammogram would have been 3 years on and the outcome would likely have been quite different.
Knowledge is Power
Immediately I began to research IDC. I needed to educate myself. As a retired teacher, I wanted to learn all about breast cancer. I was surprised and fascinated to discover the issue of dense breasts.
Why Does Breast Density Matter?
I discovered that breasts are made up of glandular and fatty tissue and whilst dense breasts are not abnormal, mammography is not as effective detecting cancers in women with highly dense breast tissue. On a mammogram image, dense tissue appears white, but so does cancer, almost like a fog. Cancers can go undetected and sometimes women are diagnosed later with interval cancers at a more advanced stage which require more treatment.
Why does the United States have Dense Breast "Inform" Laws? What I learned and why it matters
BreastScreen Australia conference debate "Breast density - Should we tell the women?"
InforMD - a new initiative to raise awareness about breast density
Breast density in screening, detection and incidence of breast cancer
The global breast density conversation: Meet one woman driving change in the United Kingdom
What to expect at a mammogram appointment