It’s pretty common to have dense breasts, which means that you have more of certain kinds of tissue in your boobs than other kinds. For around 40% of people with breasts, the majority of their breast tissue is dense.
Doctors can tell if a person has dense breasts by looking at their mammogram results—and this is important information to have, since people with dense breasts may need additional breast cancer screenings other than mammograms.
Until last week, facilities that offer mammograms, like hospitals or ob-gyn practices, weren’t all required to let people know if they have dense breasts. Some—but not all—states had laws that providers needed to be able to let people know about this, but the actual notification process from facilities that perform mammograms to doctors and/or patients has looked different across the country.
Now the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is changing that: It’s giving all mammography-providing facilities 18 months to comply with a new requirement to notify people if their mammogram shows they have dense breasts. “This is intended to help ensure important information that could affect decisions about patient care, such as the potential need for further evaluation or a repeat mammogram, is communicated as completely as possible,” the agency said in a statement released March 9.
This change will hopefully lead to more breast cancer detection and early intervention in states that haven’t had to let people know about their dense breasts, Elisa Port, MD, a surgical oncologist at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai in New York, tells SELF. It may also improve the notification process in some states.
“There’s no consistency from state to state,” Dr. Port says. In some states, she adds, only the provider is notified when a person’s mammogram shows dense breast tissue—which leaves the patient out of the conversation about what to do next, if anything.
In terms of what this will look like in practice, Dr. Port says, “a paragraph included in the [mammogram] report will state that your breasts are not dense or that your breasts are dense, and you can talk to your provider about what this means.”
Since the new requirement won’t take effect overnight, if you have a mammogram during the FDA’s proposed 18-month time frame and your provider doesn’t mention anything about whether your breasts are dense, you should bring it up yourself. Dr. Port says that a good way to start this conversation is to simply ask, “What does my report say about my breast density?”
Not everyone with dense breast tissue will need extra breast cancer screenings, but they will be recommended for some, Dr. Port says. For example, a doctor may order follow-up tests if their patient has very dense breasts (we’ll get into this below!) and a history of breast cancer in their family. Regardless of what the information leads to, knowing that you have dense breast tissue is “one more data point” on your health that you can factor into future decisions about which breast cancer screenings are right for you and how often you should get them, Dr. Port says.
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