Breast cancer survivor: ‘Don’t leave until they tell you this’


A breast cancer survivor has joined calls for women to be told if they have dense breasts – an acknowledged risk factor with breast cancer.

Cheryl Mitchell only learned she had dense breasts after she was diagnosed with the cancer.

She was now concerned that the double-whammy could have rushed her into a decision to have both breasts removed.

“Would I have made a different call, would that decision have been different? Maybe not, but I will never know because I was not given the information prior to my diagnosis,” said the Dunedin woman.

It’s estimated up to 40% of women have dense breasts, though there was no specific New Zealand data available.

Women with dense breasts have a higher chance of getting breast cancer, with higher density meaning higher risk. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said scientists still didn’t know for sure why this was true.

The US Food and Drug Administration ordered last year that screeners must tell patients of their density.

Dr Debra Ikeda from Stanford’s University of Medicine is in New Zealand this week and said clinicians would need to carefully consider the New Zealand context including how women were told of their density and if additional screening like ultrasounds would be required.

“I do think women ought to know whether or not they have dense breast tissue so that they know there is a risk of masking that that breast cancer and to know whether or not they need to have additional screening or a different type of screening.”

Officials in both Australia and New Zealand were reviewing the issue, and said more evidence was needed before further decisions were made.

“We do have to examine the evidence to ensure that whatever we do creates benefits rather than additional harm to women,” said Dr Jane O’Hallahan from the National Screening Unit.

Both the Breast Cancer Foundation and survivors such as Cheryl Mitchell want screeners to start telling patients.

“That way, women can be extra vigilant and take extra precautions. They can know they’re normal [or] they can seek further private screening if they are deemed to be high risk,” said Ah-Leen Rayner from the Breast Cancer Foundation.

Meanwhile, Mitchell had a simple message for women getting mammograms.

“Ask, do I have dense breasts? Don’t leave the room until they tell you, make them tell you. It is your right to have information about your health.”

The review was expected to take six months, at a cost that was still unknown.

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