The question you need to ask
Women urged to become ‘breast dense’ aware
NEW research reveals Aussie women remain in the dark on a common risk factor for breast cancer and are urged to become “breast dense” aware.
Dense breasts are linked to a significantly increased risk of breast cancer, yet a new national survey shows more than three quarters of women, 78%, don’t know if they’re among the two million women with the known risk factor.
The survey, commissioned by health organisation Pink Hope, also shows two-thirds of women had no idea density could obscure a lesion or lump on a mammogram.
Professor Mary Theresa Rickard, chief radiologist at Sydney Breast Clinic, says the risks associated with density fall second only to those due to known gene mutations.
Women cannot tell if they have dense breasts by the look or feel, it’s only the mammogram that can show the density, Prof Rickard said.
“When we talk about density we talk about how white is the breast on the mammogram. The whiter the mammogram the greater your risk of getting breast cancer,” she said.
“Our chances of finding a cancer on a dense breast are not as good as they are on finding it on a fatty breast, so there’s a greater chance that your cancer will be missed if you have a dense breast.”
The radiologist says women need to be their “best breast advocate” and ask the question at their next mammogram.
“If you know that your density is high then you can make sure that your breast cancer screening is personalised and tailored to your risk,” Prof Rickard said.
It’s something cancer advocate Connie Johnson campaigned for heavily during the last few years of her life — she died earlier this month after a long battle with cancer — urging women to get their breasts checked.
Currently, women everywhere, except in Western Australia, have to ask the radiologist at the time of a mammogram if they have dense breasts, says Cancer Council Australia chief executive officer Professor Sanchia Aranda.
“There’s a bit of controversy in Australia at the moment whether BreastScreen should provide that information to women, currently they do only in WA and not in the other programs and partly this is because we don’t actually know what the evidence-based advice would be,” Prof Aranda said.
Because of this, Pink Hope is calling on the Federal Government to better equip the healthcare community with the necessary tools, information and guidelines to ensure a unified and consistent approach to breast density diagnosis and treatment.
“We know that women are being referred to their GP, but that GPs — as a result of Australia’s lack of consistency on breast density — currently lack the established guidelines on breast density needed to best support them,” Kyrstal Barter, Pink Hope CEO, said.
“In many states in America, women during a mammogram, they have to, by law, be told they have dense breast tissue, there are systems in place overseas and they may not be exactly what we need here but at least they are doing something proactive,” Ms Barter said.
“For one of the biggest breast cancer risk factors, there is no system in place for personalised management, we are just a bit behind the eightball on that one,” she said.
COMMON RISK FACTOR: Women cannot tell if they have dense breasts by the look or feel, it’s only the mammogram that can show the density.
Connie Johnson received an Order of Australia honour for her commitment to cancer awareness.