Despite the huge success of breast cancer awareness campaigns in recent years, few people know that the 40% of women who naturally have denser breast tissue are four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetime. What’s more, standard mammography screening procedures are often not suitable for women with dense breasts. The nature of their breast anatomy makes potential tumors difficult to distinguish from normal tissue.
A survey carried out earlier this year highlighted worldwide disparities in people’s knowledge of dense breasts as a risk factor for cancer. Of the ten thousand people who were surveyed in ten countries, three quarters did not know that dense breast tissue carries a higher risk for developing breast cancer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, media attention around the issue correlates with people’s awareness. In Russia, Indonesia and China, media attention was highest and so was general awareness. In the UK, USA and Australia, both public awareness and media attention were lowest.
“The results of this research highlight an opportunity to further encourage awareness of dense breast tissue and empower women to take an active role in their breast health,” said Dr. Jessie Jacob, Chief Medical Officer of Breast Health, GE Healthcare. “Although the importance of breast cancer screening is well-known, this survey suggests that dense breast tissue, a relevant risk factor, is not widely understood.”
Breast density is all about the amount of connective tissue versus the amount of fat. The more connective tissue, the ‘denser’ the breast. Younger women tend to have denser breasts, becoming less dense with age. After menopause, most women’s breast tissue is replaced by fat.
On a typical mammogram, fat appears grey while connective tissue appears white. The problem is, tumors also appear white. This is the reason tumors can go unnoticed on mammograms of women with denser breasts.
One breast cancer charity trying to raise awareness of this issue is Susan G Komen for the Cure. “If a woman learns that she has dense breasts, it is important for her to talk with her healthcare provider about her risk and options for further imaging or management,” said Susan Brown, managing director of Health and Science Education for Susan G. Komen®.
Change might be just around the corner. In the USA, doctors may soon be legally required to inform their patients about breast density and the associated cancer risk. “Actions like the pending national legislation in the United States that requires doctors to inform their patients if they have dense breasts – and the related risks – will assist in the process of continuing to educate and empower woman about their breast health,” added Brown.
The survey also probed respondents’ knowledge of the most common symptoms of breast cancer. While the majority knew that a lump in the breast is a symptom, less than half could confidently name any other of the six most common symptoms, such as breast discharge, skin dimpling or rash. “As we continue to make progress in general breast cancer awareness, it is always critical to reinforce basic information about the disease,” Dr. Connie Lehman, Professor and Vice Chair and Section Chief of Breast Imaging, University of Washington Dept. of Radiology. “Understanding all the symptoms of breast cancer is critical to supporting early detection of the disease.”
We are not so far from a time when breast cancer was a death sentence, but advances in healthcare since then have helped many women with breast cancer lead full and healthy lives. Many now recover from the illness. It is important to remember that this success would not have happened without first raising awareness of breast cancer, thus attracting much-needed attention to, and funding for, medical research. Which is why, this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is now critical to raise awareness of the increased cancer risk for those 40 percent of women, to push the fight against breast cancer even further forward.
On October 8 at 9:00am ET, a panel of experts who understand or have experience living with dense breasts firsthand will join together to discuss what every woman needs to know: How you can find out if you have dense breasts, risk factors associated with breast density, new legislation in certain states that gives you the right to more information, and how to talk with your doctor about whether additional testing may be right for you. Save the date and join other attendees on Wednesday October 8, 14:00 GMT, 9.00am ET, and 6.00 am PT. Click here to save the date and join the event.