“Happy Gram,” the film that explores the relationship between breast cancer and dense breast tissue, will be distributed via Amazon Prime beginning Sept. 27 in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
The documentary was screened here last year and features Islander Towny Montant, who recounts his late wife Teresa’s battle with breast cancer after she was diagnosed with an 8-centimeter tumor three months after a “normal” mammogram.
“In May 2009 she received her ‘Happygram,’ a normal mammogram. The doctor said, ‘See you next year,’” Mr. Montant said. “At the end of this October, it’ll be eight years she’s been gone.”
Ms. Montant was secretary to the Shelter Island Highway Superintendent and Commissioner of Public Works and a former director at Camp Quinipet. She passed away Oct. 27, 2011, from metastatic triple negative breast cancer in Lucia’s Room at Southampton Hospital after a two-year-battle. She was 54.
“Happygram” is a term used by patient advocates to describe the letter women receive stating that their mammograms are “normal.” Yet for women who have dense breast tissue, mammograms can miss invasive cancers because dense tissue appears white on a mammogram — the same shade as cancer.
“Seeing a tumor in dense breast tissue is like looking for a snowball in a snowstorm,” Mr. Montant said.
“Dense tissue” refers to the amount of connective and epithelial tissue vs. fatty tissue in the breast. A woman who has dense tissue has more than 50% dense tissue in her breast vs. fatty tissue.
Approximately 40% of women who get mammograms have dense breast tissue. Women with dense tissue account for over 70% of invasive cancers, but mammograms miss more than half of cancers in dense tissue. Those women often have their cancers missed by mammograms for many years until it has grown to a late stage and metastasized.
During Ms. Montant’s fight with cancer, the couple began to spread the word about the ineffectiveness of mammograms on dense breast tissue.
“It’s really important for more people to see this film. More education — more knowledge — is power,” Mr. Montant said. “During Teresa’s two-year fight we talked to a lot of women. So many are unaware of having dense breast tissue and therefore don’t ask questions.”
But fortunately for women and the people who love them, that is changing.
In March 2019 the FDA proposed a change to the mammogram reporting guidelines for the first time in 20 years to include breast density information in mammogram reports that are sent to patients and doctors, according to a “Happy Gram” press release.
Advocates had been demanding this change for a decade, and were forced to enact state legislation to require “density reporting” while the FDA resisted calls for the change. As a result of this advocacy, 38 states had enacted some type of density notification laws as of 2018, although not all laws required notification to a woman about her own density.
The movie was inspired by the friendship between writer/director Julie Marron of Providence, R.I., and her close friend, Hallie Leighton, who died after mammograms missed her breast cancer. Ms. Leighton was instrumental in the effort to enact the New York state legislation in 2013 before she passed away from the disease.
It was Ms. Montant’s friendship with Ms. Leighton that inspired Ms. Marron to contact Mr. Montant to share his wife’s story in the film.
“The film features several women who were not informed of their breast density, of the increased cancer risk that dense tissue poses, or of the fact that mammograms can, and do, miss cancer when you have dense breasts,” Ms. Marron said.
Featured in numerous film festivals across the country, the documentary has won several awards, including first prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
“What stands out in all these stories is that everyone’s cancer was missed by a mammogram, and you just don’t hear about that when Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around,” Ms. Marron said. “We hope to highlight the importance of knowing your breast density, so that no woman ever has to go through what these women did.”
In the weeks to come it’ll become a common sight to see large pink ribbons adorning Island yards as residents who knew Ms. Montant put them out in memory of her — and to raise breast cancer awareness.
During Ms. Montant’s battle, she worked with Riverhead Building Supply to create plywood ribbons painted pink to inspire breast cancer — and breast density — awareness.
“When we first got them, Teresa put them out upside down to inspire people to ask questions and start the conversation,” Mr. Montant said. “If you have one, please put it out to remind women about breast density, mammograms and breast health awareness.”
Visit happygramthemovie.com for more information.