GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - One West Michigan woman is on a mission to help inform women that dense breast tissue can increase the risk of cancer -- and a mammogram may not be enough to detect it.
Attorney and breast cancer patient Teresa Hendricks said she's been described as a fighter.
"I think my colleagues would describe me as tenacious and always advocating for the underdog," said Hendricks.
Now, her fight is to help other women like her who have dense breast tissue -- increasing their breast cancer risk.
Nearly 50% of women have dense breast tissue. More than 90% of those women don't know their breast tissue is dense.
It's not something that can simply be detected by touch. Doctors say that women can't necessarily feel the difference between more and less dense tissue, and that doctors themselves can have trouble telling.
"Some patients have mostly fatty tissue, some have a little bit of glandular tissue, and lots of have lots of glandular tissue, so the more glandular tissue, the denser the breasts are," Dr. Thomas Getz of Spectrum Health explained.
Women with dense breast tissue are four to six times more likely to develop cancer.
The problem is that mammograms are less effective when it comes to detecting cancer in dense tissue breasts. The dense glandular tissue can often obscure cancerous tissue, explained Getz.
The best way to be certain that a woman with dense breasts is cancer-free is use MRI or ultrasound scans, which can often find cancers that are virtually invisible on a mammogram.
But many women don't know that because they were never told by a doctor or radiologist that they have dense tissue.
That's what Hendricks said happened to her. She didn't know that she had a higher risk until after something was already wrong.
"It's unbelievable that anyone would not tell a woman they need additional screening because they have dense tissue," said Hendricks.
Hendricks discovered something that felt wrong while doing a self-exam, even though she had been getting regular mammograms for some time.
"Less than six months before I discovered the lump, I had a normal mammogram," said Hendricks. "I was so vigilant about my mammograms, and no one ever told me that my mammogram wasn't going to be enough to detect a cancer."
Hendricks said that doctors and radiologists never talked to her about having dense breast tissue and the possibility that she may need different tests to detect a cancer early.
"If somebody would have given me the right information and enough information for me to act on, I could have avoided my breast cancer or detected it at the earliest stage," said Hendricks.
Instead, Hendricks had to have both of her breasts removed and underwent chemotherapy for months.
She began making bead chains during the ordeal.
"When you're going through breast cancer, sometimes you have emotional breakdowns, and I needed something to do with my hands," she said. "So I made these. ... They're called boob chains."
The chains consist of a series of beads representing the size of tumor each known method can detect. Starting from the smallest bead -- representing the size detectable by a thermagram -- and moving up to an MRI, ultrasound, mammogram, and clinical exam. The final and largest bead represents the size of a lump that can be detected through a self-exam.
That's the size of tumor Hendricks found just months after it was missed by a mammogram.
It is a visual and tactile way to bring attention to the subject and she hopes to eventually use the chains to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research.
But while she kept her hands busy with making chains, her mind was racing. The more she thought about the series of events that had led her to the surgery and chemotherapy, the angrier she became.
"You think its outrageous, and you feel rage, and you want to inform all the women you know," said Hendricks.
And, she said, it made her think there should be a law. That's when she began contacting local representatives.
Rep. Roy Schmidt (D-Grand Rapids) is now working to create a law that would require radiologists and doctors to inform patients if their breast tissue is dense and talk to them about what they can do next to help prevent cancer.
"In my three years as a legislator, I have never been more honored to take on a package or challenge like this," said Schmidt. "The bottom line is, I think this has the potential to save hundreds, thousands, if not millions, of lives."
But the bill is still in the very early stages of getting passed -- and though its future looks promising, as with all bills, there's the possibility it could never become law.
In the meantime, concerned women can talk to their doctors. They can ask about the density of their breast tissue and whether or not they need more tests.
Much of the information already exists. If a woman has had a mammogram performed on her, then her breast density has already been determined. All she has to do is ask her doctor for her score.
That score is determined on a
scale of one to four: One being almost entirely fatty tissue and four being mostly glandular. It is called a BI-RADS score, which stands for Breast Imaging-Reporting and Data System.
It is important to note that mammograms are still considered extremely important and are worth having regularly for all women.
But for those with dense tissue, additional tests may be necessary. Women should consult their doctors for their personal and best course of preventive testing.
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