Mi-Jung Lee: Why my mammogram didn't find the cancer
I never thought I would get breast cancer. I had regular mammograms, lived a healthy lifestyle. But after finding a lump last spring, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had three surgeries in four months – the last one being a mastectomy.
I wondered why the mammogram didn’t show the cancer, even when I was screened after finding the lump. However, an ultrasound did show the tumour.
I now have learned that I have dense breast tissue, which puts me at greater risk of getting breast cancer.
“Mammograms are less sensitive in finding cancer in women with dense breasts. About 50 per cent of women have dense breasts,” I was told by Dr. Paula Gordon, a leading B.C. expert in breast screening.
Why did I not know this earlier? My negative mammogram results gave me a sense of security that turns out was not warranted. I wasn’t alone.
It was time to go into reporter mode.
South of the border, there’s a growing push to give women valuable information that could save their lives.
In the United States, Dr. Nancy Cappello became an advocate for informing women about the risks of having dense breasts. After a decade of yearly mammograms, Cappello was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She too asked why the mammogram didn’t find it. She too had dense breast tissue.
Her lobbying through AreYouDense.org has now helped make it law in 14 states that women are informed of their breast tissue composition so they can pursue other screening like ultrasounds.
In Canada, no such law exists.
But there is proposed legislation to increase awareness about the risks of dense breast tissue.
There are ongoing discussions with screening experts and the Federal Ministry of Health. No action, no policy yet. There’s no standardized way of informing women about their breast density.
Dr. Paula Gordon says women should have that information so they can do self-examinations or get an ultrasound, which she believes could double cancer detection.
The BC Cancer Agency says it’s not that simple. Dr. Christine Wilson of the Screening Mammography Program says, “If we started to do ultrasounds with everyone with dense breasts, that’s quite a burden on the system.” Wilson adds ultrasounds find a lot and there are many more biopsies that turn out to be benign.
Having had a biopsy, I’d rather go through that process than be kept in the dark.
The Agency does admit more women should be educated about this crucial issue, it just hasn’t come up with a way to do that. That’s too bad for the women out there whose lives could possibly be saved.