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Detecting Cancer In Women With Dense Breasts

Phanie/Science Source

Dense breast tissue can make it difficult to read a mammogram. Does that mean women with dense breast tissue should not get mammograms at all?

Back in 2003, Nancy Cappello discovered she had breast cancer. Not only that, she discovered she had dense breast tissue, which makes it harder to discover breast tumors on a mammogram.

Since then, Cappello has been on a crusade to get states and doctors to recognize that mammograms aren't useful to many women. In fact, 45 percent of women are thought to have dense breast tissue. Cappello's organization, Are You Dense, has spearheaded laws in 25 states that in some way address the issue of dense breasts and mammogram screenings.

Nevada passed a law in 2013 mandating women be INFORMED by their doctors that they have dense breast tissue. But does that mean doctors have to use other diagnostic tools? Or are there even other good breast cancer diagnostic tools available?

Dr. Joseph Contino , breast surgeon and cancer specialist at the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, says that diagnostic tools are available, and that part of the problem is that recent studies have looked at diagnostic tools that are, in some cases, decades old.

Cappello also points out that bureaucracy within the insurance system often labels the available tools as not diagnostic - and therefore, not covered when used as diagnostic tools. Dr. Contino also points out that even when patients are covered, their deductible is so high, they still can't afford the correct diagnostic tools.

Assemblyman James Ohrenschall sponsored that 2013 law requiring women to be notified on their mammogram reports if they have dense breasts. Now he's wondering what the next steps are as the 2017 session approaches.

Nancy Cappello, Director and Founder of Are You Dense, Inc. and breast cancer survivor;  James Ohrenschall, Nevada Assemblyman;  Dr. Joseph Contino, breast cancer specialist, Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)