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What Women Should Know About Breast Density

By Marcia G. Yerman
 
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Photo: Getty Images

At the recent TEDwomen conference in Washington D.C., one of the presenters was Dr. Deborah Rhodes, an internist who has become a leader in assessing breast cancer risk. She delivered her talk in quiet and measured tones. Her passion and intensity underscored her commitment to a new diagnostic tool she has developed with a group of colleagues. Rhodes became immersed in the challenge of how to effectively detect breast tumors in women with dense breast tissue when one of her pregnant patients, in her forties and with a family history of breast cancer, asked her for an honest appraisal of the odds of finding a tumor in its early stages.

Rhodes understood that for women with dense breast tissue, “the mammogram doesn’t work well at all.” In fact, as she wrote to me via e-mail, "Breast tissue density poses a higher risk for breast cancer than having a mother or sister with the disease, but 9 out of 10 women don't know this—or how dense their breast tissue is.”
Breast density is genetically determined. Rhodes qualifies it as the “culprit” for inadequate readings of mammograms. She explained that two-thirds of women in their 40s have dense breast tissue. If a mammography cannot detect the early onset of cancer in one out of six women in the age range of 40-49, this is a major issue. Although breast density usually declines as a woman ages, up to one-third of women retain breast density for years after they reach menopause.
How important is it for women to know about their breast density? Very. You can learn this information from your mammogram report. Rhodes showed slides that illustrated the four categories of breast density. There are two groups who are at greater risk for not having a tumor detected.

Add a Comment2 Comments

Kelley Howard

Marcia:

You did an outstanding job on this article and this is such an important topic which more women need to be aware of! On this same subject, the Dr. Oz show will be featuring a segment on April 26th about BSGI technology used in combination with mammography for women with dense breast-there is a very pertinent patient story featured on this segment.

April 13, 2011 - 11:21am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous

Right now, Connecticut is the only state which mandates the communication of breast density information to the patient. This mandate became law i 2009. In 2004, I was informed that I had dense breast tissue - this was after I was diagnosed with an advanced stage cancer after a decade of "normal" mammograms. I was outraged that this information was kept from me and others. I pledged to ensure that no other woman would suffer the tragedy of an advanced stage diagnosis because of dense breast tissue. I started Are You Dense, Inc. htttp://www.areyoudense.org and am working with women in other states to enact legislation so that all women know of their breast density and have access to reliable screening tools to find cancer early when it is most treatable and survival is highest. Right now, we have pending bills in Florida, New York, Texas and are working with women in California, Kansas, Missouri and Massachussets.
All women need to get a copy of the report of their breasts that is generated by the radiologist - which will contain information about their breast density. Women then need to have a conversation with their health care provider about supplementing their mammogram with another screening tool if they have dense breast tissue.
Know your breast density as it is a matter of life.

February 14, 2011 - 6:34am
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