Are Right-to-Know Breast Density Laws Good for Women's Health?

March 21, 2013

There’s been much discussion lately about routine mammogram screening for breast cancer, including, according a new study, the very real psychological harm connected to false positive readings.

Complicating this information further is the issue of breast density. Dense breasts have less fat and more glandular and connective tissue. While some women’s breasts become less dense and more fatty as they age, other women’s breasts remain relatively dense.

Why does this matter? Having dense breast tissue makes it harder to obtain an accurate reading of mammograms. It also increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

However, questions remain about what women should do with that information. In fact, recent research suggests that actual risk of death from breast cancer is not increased for women with denser breast tissue.

Despite a lack of certainty about how dense breast tissue affects health outcomes, a handful of states have mandated that providers discuss breast density with women. On April 1, California will become the fifth state with a breast density notification law in place. Similar bills have been introduced in other states.

At the federal level, the Breast Density and Mammography Reporting Act was introduced in Congress in 2011, but never made it out of committee. It, too, would require that women be told about breast density, the correlation with cancer, and that they might benefit from supplemental screening tests.

It’s not clear, however, if additional tests would even help.

The authors of a recent commentary in the medical journal Radiology note that while explaining the increased risk of cancer to women with dense breasts “seems ethical, reasonable, and appropriate,” there is little known about what additional follow-up might help those women.

They conclude that “the advocacy push to legislate mandatory reporting of breast density and possible adjunct screening for all women with heterogeneously or extremely dense breasts is far outpacing the reporting of evidence that supplemental screening may provide better outcomes for these patients.”

They also raise concerns about invasive procedures: “Because some cancers detected at screening may not go on to cause symptoms or death, additional interventions performed on these excess cancers would only increase morbidity for these patients.”

These concerns are similar to those raised about routine mammography in younger women — that more testing may increase harm to women from extra procedures, while not actually increasing survival rates.

Breast Cancer Action addressed mandatory notification laws in late 2012, coming down against such legislation:

Unfortunately, the importance of breast density is still not well understood and as a result there is no clear action for women who receive this information. Breast Cancer Action believes that medical practitioners should discuss all aspects of a woman’s health with her and we do not believe legislation is the appropriate way to address the issue of breast density. We believe resources and energy are better spent on working for better medical care and understanding the ways to prevent breast cancer in the first place.

Laura Newman, a medical journalist, has also looked at this issue. Her Patient POV blog has a couple of clear, useful posts, including “Are Dense-Breast, Right-to-Know Laws Helpful?” and “Is the Bar High Enough for Screening Breast Ultrasounds for Dense Breasts?

Where does this leave women, especially those who may be told they have dense breast tissue as a result of one of these new laws? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer right now.

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