Dense breasts: Talk to your doctor


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Starting June 1, health care providers across the state will be required by law to inform women in writing if they have dense breasts. Dense breast tissue can make it harder for mammograms to detect breast cancer.

Doctors are preparing for a flood of questions from patients who want to know what they should do with that information.

For West Michigan doctors Kirk Agerson and Robyn Hubbard, the dense breast conversation is nothing new. It’s information they’ve been sharing with their patients for years.

“The biggest problem is going to be trying to allay people’s fears that just because they have dense breasts that they don’t immediately have cancer,” said Dr. Kirk Agerson.

Dr. Agerson will say anything that increases people’s awareness of health risks is a good thing. But experience has also shown him that armed with medical information, some may jump to conclusions and maybe even think the worst.

“That’s my fear is that it’s going to create this demand that is totally inappropriate to get an MRI in anyone who has dense breasts.”

While doctors encourage MRIs for women who have dense breasts and other factors that put them at the highest risk level for breast cancer, not all health care providers think dense-breasted women who have average risk factors should seek MRIs. While Molecular Resonance Imaging is the most sensitive test, it is also the most expensive and has a higher rate of false-positives results, meaning it picks up on things that turn out not to be cancer.

Still, advocates of the new law say women should have the choice to access whatever procedure is most likely to detect cancer through dense breast tissue.

But doctors say the next step for women who find out they have dense breasts can be as varied as the individuals themselves.

“The bill states that we’re making you aware you have dense breasts and that additional studies may be needed, but there’s not good consensus on what the next step should be,” said Dr. Robyn Hubbard.

The supplemental screenings available including MRI and tomosynthesis can be expensive and insurance companies have yet to catch up to this. Those additional tests can also really weigh on a patient.

“MRIs are very sensitive and they pick up a lot of things that end up not being cancer. But it creates anxiety for the patient and it also creates more testing as in biopsies,” said Agerson.

“I think the biggest factor is to be aware as women that we all have a risk of breast cancer,” said Dr. Hubbard. “It’s one of the most common cancers that can affect us and so we should do our regular screenings our breast checks, we should be aware of our own risk factors. Everybody’s different so applying a general rule to everybody doesn’t ever work. So talk to your doctor.”

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