“About 40 percent of women who have mammograms are found to have dense breast tissue, a normal finding that can make it harder to detect cancer. But many of these women receive letters in the mail about the finding that can be hard to decipher, a new study found.
“ ‘Twenty percent of the population only reads at an eighth-grade level, and many more don’t read at a much higher level than that,’ said Nancy R. Kressin, one of the study’s authors who is a professor at Boston University School of Medicine and a senior researcher at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.
“ ‘For many women, these notifications are not going to be easy to read’ and might even be alarming, she said. ‘We’ve talked to some women who received these letters, and their reaction was “Oh my God, I have cancer.” ‘ ”
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“A new study offers help to patients and doctors who are trying to deal with mammogram results that many women consider troubling and confusing: the finding of ‘dense’ breast tissue.
“Not only is breast density linked to an increased risk of cancer, it also makes cancer harder to detect because dense tissue can hide tumors from X-rays. But the new research indicates that not all women with dense breasts are at very high risk.
“Patient advocates urge women with dense breasts to ask doctors about extra tests like ultrasound or an M.R.I. to check for tumors that mammography might have missed. Studies have found that those exams can improve detection of tumors over mammography alone in dense breasts.
“Pressed by advocacy groups, 22 states have passed laws requiring that breast density be reported to mammography patients, and similar federal legislation has been introduced in the House and the Senate.”
“Improved prognosis for women with estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer who experience a large reduction in mammographic density following the initiation of tamoxifen treatment extends to premenopausal as well as postmenopausal women, researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. While a previous analysis linked decline in mammographic density following initiation of tamoxifen with improved survival in postmenopausal women, this more recent evaluation of change also showed improved survival in premenopausal women ‘for whom tamoxifen is the primary anti-endocrine therapy,’ Nyante et al wrote.
“ ‘Mammographic density reflects the fibroglandular composition of the breast, and women with the highest levels have approximately four-fold higher breast cancer risk compared with women with the lowest density,’ the investigators noted. ‘Emerging evidence,’ they added, ‘indicates that density reductions specifically among tamoxifen users may predict treatment effectiveness in adjuvant and chemopreventative settings, which could have value for planning long-term treatment.’ ”