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.