Women’s health just took a leap forward with the passage of California Senate Bill 1538, authored by former state Senator Joe Simitian, which requires that women with dense breast tissue as determined by a mammogram be informed that they have the condition.
Women with dense breast tissue will be made aware of the fact that a tumor may not be seen on the mammogram, that they are at a higher risk for breast cancer, and that they should talk to a doctor about the condition. They will also be informed about other breast screening options.
This law came about as a suggestion to Mr. Simitian from a local Santa Cruz woman, Amy Colton, who has dense breast tissue and developed breast cancer in spite of having had routine mammograms. Kudos to Amy for championing this issue.
About 40 percent of all women have dense breast tissue, and many are unaware of their condition. Well over half of the cases of breast cancer in these women were missed with only routine mammography.
After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the U.S. Although, we usually associate breast cancer in women, it does occasionally occur in men.
The most common symptoms of breast cancer are:
- A breast lump
- Any change in the nipple, especially discharge or bleeding
- A change to the breast skin, such as the appearance of a dimple or pitting of the skin
- A change in size or shape of the breast
It is not clear why some women get breast cancer and some don’t.
It would seem that breast cancer is caused by an interaction between one’s genetic make-up and/or one’s environment. About 10 percent of breast cancer can be linked to inherited defective genes passed down through generations of a family. Blood tests are available to determine who may have these genes.
Known risk factors for breast cancer are:
- Increasing age — it’s more common in women older than 55
- A family or personal history of breast cancer
- Inherited genes
- Beginning your period at a young age or beginning menopause at an older age
- Post-menopausal hormone therapy, using a combination of estrogen and progesterone
- Drinking alcohol
Tests and procedures to detect breast cancer include:
- Breast exam, including self-exams as well as routine exams from a doctor
- Breast ultrasounds
- Using a needle for a biopsy (removing a specimen of the suspected tissue for examination)
Current treatment guidelines for breast cancer are too large of a topic for this report.
Let me just say that tremendous strides are being made in the successful treatment of this disease.
Fortunately, the majority of breast changes do not turn out to be cancerous. Even if you have had a recent normal mammogram, see your doctor if you find any changes in your breasts, and work with your doctor to have routine breast exams and testing.
- Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website, valleydoctor.wordpress.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.