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Californians Get New Breast Cancer Detection Bill

Lives could be saved by informing women about dense breast tissue.

State Senator Joe Simitian has reintroduced legislation designed to inform women about the dangers of dense breast tissue.

The bill, SB 1538, would require that after a mammogram, women with dense breast tissue be informed that such tissue can obscure abnormalities on a mammogram, such as cancer, and that they may wish to talk about the value of additional screenings with their doctors.

A similar version of the bill received broad bipartisan support last year, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown due to objections over the precise language of the bill. Since then, Virginia has adopted such a law, and a pair of studies looked into Connecticut’s version of the law found a 100 percent increase in breast cancer detection rates in women with dense breast tissue, according to a statement by Simitian last week.

"I’m reintroducing the legislation, and at the same time talking with the governor’s office to see whether there is a path forward on which he and the Legislature can agree," said Simitian. "While I was disappointed in the governor’s veto, I was encouraged that his primary concern appears to have been the precise language of the proposed notice."

"Senate Bill 1538 simply requires that information that is already shared between doctors also be shared with the patient herself," Simitian said. "It’s about a patient’s right to know."

A Mayo Clinic study last year cited by Simitian found that women with dense breast tissue were 75 percent more likely to have cancerous tissue missed by mammography alone.

Since both dense breast tissue and cancerous tissue appear white in a mammogram, it can be difficult to see the cancer.

"This is why it’s so important that a patient be told she has dense breast tissue, and that the dense breast tissue may limit the ability of the mammogram to spot a problem," said Simitian. "When it comes to your health, ignorance is not bliss. What you don’t know can hurt you.

Simitian also pointed to the economic value of passing SB 1538, suggesting that cancer treatment is far cheaper in the early stages than after it has advanced.

Santa Barbara Radiologist Judy Dean said a preponderance of evidence supports the need for the bil.

"Numerous studies show that women with dense breast tissue face a higher risk of developing breast cancer, and studies also show that dense breast tissue is the most frequent reason cancer is missed by mammography," said Dean.  "These two facts mandate that we stop withholding density information from women, so that they can make informed decisions about their health."

Nearly one in eight women will develop breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Women with dense breast tissue are five times more likely to develop cancer than women with low breast density, yet most women don’t know how dense their breast tissue is, according to Simitian.

SB 1538 was originally inspired by Simitian’s "There Oughta Be a Law" contest. The idea came from Santa Cruz resident Amy Colton, an RN and cancer survivor. She was never made aware of her breast tissue density until after she underwent cancer treatment.

“No one should have to go through what I did unnecessarily. Women have the right to know about the risk factors they face and the limits of mammography,” said Colton. Colton visited Sacramento six times last year to testify before the State Legislature, and to visit individual legislators and their staffs to drum up support for the measure.

Last year’s measure was supported by the California Nurses Association, the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, the California Association of Health Underwriters, Breast Cancer Fund, the California National Organization for Women, Ravenswood Family Health Center, Democratic Activists for Women Now, the Shelia R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center and the California Communities United Institute, according to the statement by Simitian. 

Similar legislation has already passed in Connecticut, Texas and Virginia. Congress and 15 states have related legislation pending, according to the statement. 

More information is available at Senator Simitian’s website. For more information on dense breast tissue visit www.areyoudense.org

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