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Cancer risks and testing for breast density

A new law went into effect at the beginning of 2015 requiring North Carolina physicians to inform female patients about breast density. According to statistics reported in Citizen-Times, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will have a breast cancer diagnosis sometime during their lives. The state's new law was passed to encourage women with dense breasts to consider extra screening tests that may detect the presence of cancer more easily than regular mammograms.

About two dozen states have some version of the law, which obligates doctors to have the density discussion with women whose breasts contain a significant amount of connective and breast tissue, rather than fat. Malignant growths and dense tissue both appear white on mammograms. With MRIs and ultrasounds, the tissue looks gray while tumors stand out in white.

Dense breast tissue is common in over 65 percent of premenopausal women and among one in four women after menopause, according to the advocacy group Are You Dense. The organization is pushing for a federal breast density proposal.

Some doctors believe it is too soon to impose expensive, added cancer tests upon all women with dense tissue, because "density distribution" isn't the same from one female patient to the next. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicated physicians should review all cancer risk factors before suggesting women with dense breasts undergo further screening.

Conversely, an earlier study by the American College of Radiology Imaging Network showed ultrasound tests detected over four cases of breast cancer for every 1,000 women with dense breasts that mammograms did not uncover. Nevertheless, in recent years, the federal Preventive Services Task Force advised women to wait until 50 to start getting every-other-year mammograms, once recommended for women beginning at 40.

When a failure to diagnose breast cancer causes harm, affected patients may file legal claims for compensation against negligent doctors and hospitals.

Source: American Cancer Society, "Breast Density and Your Mammogram Report," accessed May. 22, 2015

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