A recent Harris Poll showed that 95 percent of women do not know their breast density and only one in 10 women are informed of the fact by their physicians. That lack of knowledge could kill them.
The League of Women Voters held an informational forum about dense breast tissue as a cancer risk in the main dining hall at Camp Quinipet on Saturday, November 19. The event was attended by about 20 people including breast cancer survivors and family members, League of Women Voter members and interested community members.
Speakers were Kathryn Cunningham of the League of Women Voters; Dr. Nancy Capello Ph.D. of Are You Dense Inc., an advocacy group based in Woodbury, Connecticut; JoAnn Pushkin of D.E.N.S.E. (Density Education National Survivors’ Effort) and Second District New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.
Ms. Cunningham opened the forum with a moment of silence for Teresa Montant, an Island woman who died from breast cancer last month. She organized the forum during the summer and fall and the League took over as its sponsor after her death.
Ms. Montant pushed for breast density awareness because her illness might have been caught earlier if she’d known she had dense breast tissue — a risk factor for breast cancer. Those with dense breast tissue should have ultrasound exams in addition to an annual mammogram. Ms. Montant didn’t know that until after her illness was diagnosed.
New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. spoke to the group as the co-sponsor of a bill before the New York State Legislature that would require insurance companies to pay for additional testing for women with dense breasts. It also would require mammography reports to include information about breast density.
He explained that, because 2012 will be an election year for the legislature, the bill has a “real chance of passage” but it will require “intensive” grassroots efforts. Mr. Thiele said that if the bill were passed, he couldn’t “think of any better tribute” to Ms. Montant, who he said had arranged for him to speak at the forum more than six months ago. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate last year by Senator John Flanagan, but it never came to a vote in the Assembly.
Two of the forum’s speakers said they had received diagnoses of advanced breast cancer after years of normal mammograms. Dr. Capello, one survivor, said that every three minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer and that 38 percent of the time the disease isn’t caught until the advanced stage. “It’s great to celebrate life,” Dr. Capello said, “but the reality is 23 percent” of women with breast cancer die because of the disease.
Dr. Capello is the president of Are You Dense, Inc., which seeks to educate the public about dense breast tissue. It also pushes for legislation to require that doctors communicate with patients about their breasts’ density and that insurance companies pay for ultrasound exams for women with extremely dense breasts.
The other survivor who spoke was JoAnn Pushkin, who also learned of her risk factor only after a diagnosis. Like Teresa Montant, she said she felt the lump in her breast during a self-exam.
In 2009, Connecticut became the first state to mandate that physicians tell women about their breast density. Federal legislation requiring the same thing was introduced in March by New York Third District Representative Rosa DeLauro. East End Congressman Tim Bishop co-signed The Breast Density and Mammography Reporting Act of 2011 days after Teresa Montant’s death.
Dr. Capello called Ms. Montant a “passionate crusader” for breast density awareness.
Breast tissue density is measured by radiologists on a four-category sliding scale ranging from primarily fatty to extremely dense tissue. During a PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Capello asked, “Where’s the cancer?” as she showed photographs comparing mammograms from women on the extremes of the four-category spectrum.
The first photograph showed a mammogram of a category-one breast. It appeared transparent aside from a white lump. She said that it didn’t take a medical degree to spot the problem area.
Detection in “extremely dense” category-four tissue, however is more difficult, she said. Both dense breast tissue and malignant tumors appear white in mammograms, making tumors far more difficult to spot.