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A breast cancer survivor’s story and why you need to know, are you dense?

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime with age being the biggest risk factor for contracting the disease. This statistic can be frightening for women  40 and above for whom the American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms.  For younger women, a breast cancer diagnosis may seem unimaginable or unlikely, until it happens to them or someone they know.

“It was quite obvious that there was something wrong that I couldn’t ignore anymore.”  At age 34, Linnea Harrington was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer that had metastasized to her hips and spine.  The young wife, active mother of two had no family history, no risk factors, or none that she was aware of.  “My breast had swelled up more than two times the size of the other almost overnight, so I made a doctors’ appointment immediately,” said Harrington. The doctor ordered a mammogram which showed no signs of cancer. But severe swelling coupled with pain led Harrington’s doctor to follow-up immediately with an ultrasound, a supplemental diagnostic test which uncovered the cancer. “I had a tumor that was eight centimeters and another mass underneath that tumor.  My breast was basically 80 percent tumor which is pretty incredible. The cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes, and a full body scan showed it had actually metastasized to my hips and spine.”

Fibroglandular tissue looks white on mammograms. These images show a range of density, starting with a mostly fatty breast on the left and a very dense breast on the right.

Fibroglandular tissue looks white on mammograms. These images show a range of density, starting with a mostly fatty breast on the left and a very dense breast on the right.

Harrington was in disbelief.  During a breast exam a year earlier, she had been told she had ‘lumpy’ or dense breasts.  Breast density levels can be measured during a mammogram, but Harrington’s doctor never ordered a mammogram for her nor did he explain what it means to have dense breasts.  “I didn’t know anything about dense breasts. I was just told that I had very dense breasts,” said Harrington. “He also said young women tend to have dense breasts. I thought, OK, this is normal.”

Harrington’s lumps were anything but normal. Had she known that dense breast tissue can increase a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer, she would have been more proactive in getting her “lumpy” breasts checked out sooner.  “I really believe, a year earlier, when I did show symptoms that I didn’t know were symptoms, if I had been educated, had I been more of my own advocate to tell the doctor that I know this isn’t normal, I need to get this checked out, I probably would have been diagnosed before stage four.”

Breast cancer awareness US v11

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When it comes to lack of awareness around breast density, Harrington is not alone.  A new survey sponsored by GE Healthcare entitled “Diagnosis Anxiety: The Working Mother Breast Screening Report” sheds important light on the level of awareness women have about breast cancer and breast density.  Of the more than  2,500 women  age 35 and older surveyed in the U.S. by the Working Mother Research Institute (WMRI), only one out of five women who have dense breasts know that they may be at a higher risk of breast cancer.  Fewer than half, or 43-percent, know that having dense breast tissue makes it harder to read a mammogram.

Jessie Jacob, MD, chief medical officer of Breast Health at GE Healthcare says, “Dense breast tissue masks cancers making it difficult for radiologists to detect on a standard mammogram.  As a breast imaging physician, I educate my patients about risk factors around breast density and the supplemental screening options that exist because there is no one size fits all approach to screening women with dense breasts.”

The survey also explored what women know about breast cancer today, what they do to prevent the disease or detect it early, and how women feel about the options and information available to them.

Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media, says, “This new WMRI survey touches on a topic that affects all women, whether or not they’re working and whether or not they’re moms.  The big questions about how to protect ourselves always loom, and the annual ritual of mammography is a time of intense anxiety for many of us.”

For Harrington, “Diagnosis Anxiety” illustrates the need for more education.  “I always share my own story. I share about the fact that I had dense breasts, but I didn’t know what it meant. I share what breast density is, and that’s a simple question you can ask your doctor when you are having your clinical breast exam.  It’s an easy conversation to have,” she said. “The better educated we are, the more aware we’re going to be about our breast health.”

More Information

Infographic: Dense Breast Tissue