GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The woman who pushed for Michigan’s new breast density notification law calls its passage a “bittersweet victory.”
“I’m resentful we couldn’t do it sooner and save more women,” Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch said.
In three weeks, health care providers in Michigan will be required by state law to notify women if they have dense breast tissue, which makes it harder for mammograms to detect breast cancer.
If a mammogram shows more than half of your breast tissue is dense, the results letter you receive in the mail will include the following language:
“Your mammogram shows that your breast tissue is dense. Dense breast tissue is very common and is not abnormal. However, dense breast tissue can make it harder to find cancer through a mammogram. Also, dense breast tissue may increase your risk for breast cancer. This information about the result of your mammogram is given to you to raise your awareness. Use this information to discuss with your health care provider whether other supplemental tests in addition to your mammogram may be appropriate for you, based on your individual risk. A report of your results was sent to your ordering physician. If you are self-referred, a report of your results was sent to you in addition to this summary.” – See more online.
The new law is aimed at ensuring that what happened to Hendricks-Pitsch won’t happen to other women.
After seven years of clean mammogram results, the Grand Rapids attorney found her own cancer.
“It was life changing for me because I couldn’t believe that (even though) I was doing everything right and being proactive about my exams, that my cancer would be diagnosed at a later stage than the size of a speck,” Hendricks-Pitsch said.
“Dense tissue is white. Things that are abnormal are white,” Dr. Christina Jacobs of Bronson Advanced Radiology in Kalamazoo said as she explained why mammograms aren’t as effective on dense breast tissue.
“So finding white spots on a white background, they can be hidden by the white tissue,” she said.
But Hendricks-Pitsch was never told that she has dense breasts, let alone that her breast tissue could hide cancer on mammogram results.
It’s a problem that Jacobs recognized early in her career. Women were not getting information about their breast tissue density level, nor that dense tissue might make mammograms less effective.
“I would see a woman who was getting regular mammograms, and she’d come in a few months after her normal mammogram and now she has a lump, and it’s not a small cancer and she’s confused,” Jacobs said. “She’s confused so you start explaining, ‘You have dense tissue; you can’t see it on your mammogram.’ And, understandably, the woman’s upset: ‘Dense tissue, what’s that? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?'”
Jacobs said she understands the frustration women feel.
“People get angry. I would, too, if something’s withheld from me. If I knew about it and I chose not to, then that was my choice, but if nobody told me that really burns,” Jacobs said.
She said she thinks Michigan’s new law is overdue.
On June 1, Michigan will become the 21st state to adopt a Breast Density Notification Law.
On the same day Hendricks-Pitsch told her story to state lawmakers at a committee hearing, she lost her cousin to breast cancer.
“I got on the bus after testifying, I knew she was struggling in her last hours of life, and I found out she held on until we finished testifying and got on the bus. So I think of Terri,” Hendricks-Pitsch said.
It was for her cousin Terri — for all women in Michigan — that she lobbied for the bill.