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Women Breast Density and Cancer Know the Facts

Tuesday, Mar 04, 2014

A new state law went into effect in February concerning women and breast cancer detection. How will it affect you or a woman you know?

It's estimated that 32 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Pennsylvania every day. In 2013, there were about 232,340 new cases of breast cancer in the U.S. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women (followed by lung and colorectal cancers).

The Breast Density Notification Act signed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in November 2013 requires mammography providers to inform women in writing about their breast density. The law went into effect in February.

What is breast density?

Breasts are made up of a mixture of fibrous and glandular tissue and fatty tissue. Breasts are considered dense if a woman has a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue but not much fat. Age affects breast density with younger women tending to have more dense tissue while older women have more fatty tissue.

How does a woman know if she has dense breasts?

Breast density is determined by the radiologist who reads a mammogram. There is a density scale, and a woman's doctor should be able to tell her whether she has dense breasts based on where she falls in the density scale. About 80% of women are categorized as having mildly to moderately dense breasts.

Why is breast density important?

Dense breast tissue can make it harder to find cancer on a mammogram, and that increases the risk of a late-stage diagnosis in many women. Having dense breast tissue may increase the risk of breast cancer.

How does this law affect women when it comes to mammograms?

The new law requires hospitals and other diagnostic facilities to notify women of their breast density and offer other screening options in addition to their routine mammograms. The written notice suggests a conversation with a physician about these options, which include MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and breast ultrasound. The law does not require insurance companies to cover the additional screenings.

No matter what a woman's breast density is, annual mammograms are still recommended for all women starting at age 40, earlier if there are other risk factors like a family history. A mammogram is the only medical imaging screening test proven to reduce breast cancer deaths. Many cancers are seen on mammograms even if a woman has dense breasts.

What is Doylestown Hospital doing about the new law?

Michele Kopach, MD, is medical director of the Women's Diagnostic Center of Doylestown Hospital. "As the law will raise public awareness about the limitations of mammography, we will use all available resources to continue finding breast cancer at its earliest stages," she said.

At Doylestown Hospital, physicians find breast cancer at earlier stages than other cancer centers in Pennsylvania, according to the National Cancer Data Base. Doylestown is accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers and is an American College of Radiology Breast Imaging Center of Excellence.

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