PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Women who have dense breasts are four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with low breast density. The density of a breast can make it difficult to find cancer on a mammogram.
Cancer is easier to detect in fattier breasts, because fat appears black in mammograms and cancer is white. But tissues and glands are white, making it harder to decipher what is the cancer and what is normal. Dense breasts used to be the most common among younger women, but as post-menopausal women become more health that this age group of women has dense breasts, too.
In this month's Buddy to Buddy, Barbara Deschenes tells us what it means if women have dense breasts and what questions they should be asking their physician.
"If I had gone for an ultrasound earlier, if I had known to have this discussion with my physician, my story could be different now, maybe not. I'm not going backwards," Deschenes said.
Deschenes was diagnosed with breast cancer last November. Doctors believe the cancerous tumors had been in her body for three to five years prior to her diagnosis. But because Barbara has dense breasts, her cancer went undetected in her mammogram.
"I was doing everything that I thought I should be doing - having my yearly mammograms, doing self breast exams, and yet, you know, I had cancer."
It wasn't until her breast surgeon, Dr. Melinda Molin, explained what breast density is that Barbara learned mammography was not the best tool for cancer to be detected. Dr. Molin says Barbara's story is not uncommon.
Dr. Molin went on to explain, "What we say is that in a very dense breast, what we call 'false negative rate', in other words, the mammogram is read as normal, appropriately so, because nothing is showing up. But on the other hand, there's an active cancer."
"I knew I had dense breasts, I did not know what it meant," Deschenes said.
Since she began her fight against breast cancer, Barbara has made it her goal to make women more proactive about their health. She works for an advocacy group, AreYouDense.org, a national organization that is educating women about their breast density, and trying to pass federal legislation about how doctors are communicating with their patients. After a women gets a mammogram, a lay letter is sent to the patient from the radiologist's office. It doesn't include anything about the density of the patient's breasts, but that's what Barbara is trying to change.
"So instead of it just saying your mammogram is normal, if you have dense breasts, that letter will explain that you have dense breasts, that you should have a conversation with your physician."
Until the lay letter includes this information on density, Barbara will keep smiling through the tough moments and fighting to help other women know what it means to have dense breasts.
LD 1886, the bill that proposes this revised lay letter, was sponsored in February, and a public hearing was held in March. Deschenes says although it's a complicated process that will take a long time to turn the bill into a law, the conversation about breast density has already started, and that's what she believes is most important.