By Rachel Pappas – Founder of www.1UpOnCancer.com & Author of Hopping Roller Coasters
About 50 percent of women have dense breasts, meaning the tissue is more fibrous and glandular than fatty. What else it means is that it’s harder to catch cancer with digital mammography. The technology misses breast cancers 40 to 60 percent of the time in this population. I learned this the hard way: when a mammogram missed my tumor a few months before my breast cancer diagnosis. And a second one missed it a few days before my biopsy that confirmed a 3-cm tumor.
This is not to scare anyone, but hopefully to empower you to learn your breast density if you don’t know it. And to look into more sensitive diagnostic screening options if you do have dense breasts, especially since, while dense breasts are common, research shows they put us at higher risk for breast cancer.
Know that some states have adopted laws requiring imaging centers and or referring physicians to let women know what their breast density is, so they can opt for the best screening options. The newest technology, proven to increase early detection by 40 percent in women with dense breasts, is called 3D mammography.
This type of mammogram has been in the works since the early 90s and was FDA approved in 2012. Rather than look at a piece of the whole chest as with standard mammography, radiologists, using 3D imaging, view individual, 1-mm-thin slices of breast. They can look 1 mm deep, then 2 mm deep, all the way through the breast to detect disease that may be concealed by tissue. Think about a loaf of bread—I know, you’d probably rather not consider your body parts to be dough, but to put the concept in perspective, imagine being able to see all the way through the loaf rather than just the top and bottom slices.
The 3-D mammogram is virtually the same experience for the patient. The breast is still compressed, the procedure is about the same length of time. You get the same amount of radiation exposure, but your provider is able to retrieve more information.
Currently many insurance companies do not cover 3D mammography. But some imaging centers offer the technology at significantly reduced rates. My cancer center charges $40 to non-Medicare patients, and screens at no charge to Medicare patients.
So if you were not told what your breast density is, ask your doctor. Look into 3D mammography if you have dense breasts. See if your insurance covers the test, and if it’s not covered, ask if you can have a rate adjustment. It could save your life.
Rachel Pappas is breast cancer survivor. She is the founder of www.1UpOnCancer.com. And the author of Hopping Roller Coasters, which tells the story of her and her daughter, both diagnosed with bipolar disorder.