6 Oct 2016

Should women be informed about their breast density?

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:22 pm on 6 October 2016
breast screening

Photo: AFP

Seven New Zealand women will be told today that they have breast cancer, according to the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation, and one in nine will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.

Recent campaigns have done much to raise awareness of breast screening, but should this check include a report on breast density?

Lyn Swinburne, an Australian breast cancer awareness campaigner, says it definitely should for two important reasons.

Women with dense breasts have 2 to 6 times the risk of getting breast cancer, says Lyn, and also run the risk of small tumours not showing up on their mammogram.

“If we can find any clues as to which women we need to watch a bit more carefully – because they have a family history or because they have dense breasts – then my view is we should be keeping a closer eye on those women.”

Government-funded ultrasounds or MRIs for the top 10 percent of women who have extremely dense breasts would be a good start, she says.

So why is telling women their breast density not a matter of course in Australia and New Zealand? (only one state in Australia has mandated it so far).

Lyn believes one hold-up is that medical authorities don’t have any strategies to give women, who they fear will be “going off and having all sorts of tests that are not helpful, that will be unclear or that will cause them extra anxiety”.

“I say, please let the women decide whether they’re prepared to be more anxious or less anxious, if they want to keep looking for a breast cancer that may or may not be there.”

She refers to cases where women are diagnosed with breast cancer only months after a mammogram.

“They say ‘How did you miss it?’ And it’s because they have very dense breasts.

“It’ll be good if women are aware and start asking when they have their mammograms ‘Have I got dense breasts? What is my density?’ That would be the best.”

Lynn Swinburne is board member of Volpara Solutions - an international imaging technology company based in Wellington that is now able to quantify the level of breast density with a number.

CORRECTION: In the audio of the interview above Lyn Swinburn mistakenly said  women with dense breasts have a 2 percent to 6 percent higher risk of getting breast cancer - when she meant they have 2 to 6 times the risk of developing breast cancer.