Imagine having a mammogram and then receiving, to your great relief, a follow-up letter saying “no signs of cancer.” Then six months later you learn that you have advanced breast cancer.
Imagine having a mammogram and then receiving, to your great relief, a follow-up letter saying “no signs of cancer.” Then six months later you learn that you have advanced breast cancer. This happened to someone very close to me. She was angry and frightened and wondered what she did wrong. Unfortunately, she is one of the 20 percent of breast cancer patients whose cancer does not show up on a mammogram.
The National Cancer Institute says it happens most often in women who have dense breast tissue. According to several well-respected websites I visited, up to two-thirds of young women and one-fourth of postmenopausal women have dense breast tissue. The kick in the pants is studies show women with dense breast tissue are five to six times more likely to get breast cancer. Even scarier is the fact that up to 75 percent of cancers in women with dense breast tissue are missed when their doctors rely solely on traditional film mammograms for cancer screening. So what do you do?
First, get annual breast exams by someone trained to detect breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends a clinical breast exam at least every three years for women in their 20s and 30s as part of their regular health exam. Women age 40 and older should have a breast exam by a health professional every year along with a mammogram. A digital mammogram is best for those with dense breast. Knowing your breast density will help you and your doctor determine if additional testing is necessary. For some women who have dense breast tissue and other risk factors for breast cancer, an ultrasound or MRI can find cancers that a mammogram might miss.
My doctor warns that additional testing may lead to “false positives,” and that a suspicious ultrasound or MRI would lead to a biopsy, which adds to “anxiety, unnecessary surgery and expense.” The bottom line is that you should know the facts, know your family history, know your risk, know whether or not you have dense breast tissue, and — with your doctor’s help — know which screening tools are right for you. Early detection means you have better odds of beating cancer.