According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. But the good news is that death rates from breast cancer are declining. These decreases are believed to be the result of earlier detection through screening, increased awareness and improved treatment.
Early detection could be further enhanced by the passage of Senate Bill 420 which, as of January 2014, requires doctors to notify patients whose mammogram results show significantly dense breast tissue. This is because some women with dense breasts have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with less dense breasts.
"Dense tissue can inhibit the sensitivity level of mammography," explains Nicole McPheeters, Providence Medford's Breast Center coordinator. "Now when patients come in for a mammogram, the follow-up letter they receive may include information about their breast density and advise them about options for additional screening."
McPheeters says that although mammography is still the gold standard for early detection, other procedures like ultrasound, MRI or breast-specific gamma imaging may provide further analysis of suspect tissue.
From that point, it will be up to the patient and her doctor to decide what other, if any, diagnostic tests may be needed. "What's really important is looking at any additional risk factors," McPheeters says. "A patient may have dense breast tissue, but if she doesn't have other health considerations that increase her level of risk, she may not need further screening."
Some women are still hearing mixed messages about mammograms, she says. "The bottom line is to get one every year after the age of 40. We still see a lot of breast cancers after the age of 75—the risk increases with age. And we're still seeing large, invasive cancers in ladies who haven't been getting mammograms."
Unfortunately, it was not part of the legislation that insurance companies are required to pay for these services, McPheeters cautions, so be aware that these may be out-of-pocket expenses.
A breast cancer survivor herself, McPheeters says, "I think it's important for a patient's doctor to know what this law means, how it affects their patient and what other factors they need to look at to help the patient decide what other tests might be beneficial."