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Your Healthy Family: Dense breast tissue and breast cancer

Posted at 2:56 PM, Oct 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-28 16:56:09-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — In this Your Healthy Family, as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we're talking about dense breast tissue and the challenges it presents to catching breast cancer early. It’s a topic that got national attention in recent weeks when Katie Couric announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I sat down with Dr. Olga Mengin, a board certified radiologist and the medical director of breast imaging for UCHealth Memorial in Colorado Springs who is also fellowship trained in breast imaging, to talk about the challenges dense breast tissue presents.

Dr. Mengin says, “First I'd like to talk about Katie Couric. Whenever we have a celebrity that brings a personal story that people can associate with, it's wonderful because it brings an awareness. I think it also helps people feel more comfortable with the whole process. It makes it easier for people to talk about, and that is good. I for one am extremely grateful to her for sharing this extremely personal story with everyone because we all benefit from it. I'm sure there's women out there getting screening mammograms because of her story. Katie Couric talks about getting screening mammograms; she is wonderful. She follows all our guidelines. She gets a mammogram every year and she also has dense breast tissue, so she gets some additional screening.”

So how exactly does dense breast tissue make finding lumps more difficult - both for women doing a self-exam and medical professionals?

Dr. Mengin explains: “I'm going to use my hand as an example. Let's say that a woman doesn’t have dense breast tissue, so her tissue is like my fingers and you can see through the gaps between my fingers. Let's say there is a leaf that represents breast cancer; If i put the leaf between my fingers, we can see it. If the leaf is a small cancer and we put it behind the palm of my hand, that leaf needs to become bigger before we can see it. That's sort of the analogy that we use between dense breast tissue and non-dense breast tissue. Dense tissue has what we call a masking effect.”

Dr. Mengin also says dense breast tissue is one of the reasons 3D mammography is becoming more and more common.

“When we see dense breast tissue we want to do something extra. One of the extra things that we do is 3D mammograms. Those make an enormous difference in our ability to diagnose cancer. A 3D mammogram is actually beneficial for all women, not just women with dense breast tissue. All women are recommended to have 3D mammograms so we're able to scroll through that tissue with lots of little images throughout the breast, not just one single image of the breast tissue compressed. It allows us to look through dense tissue and look for breast cancer.”

In Colorado, medical professionals are now required by law to notify women when it's discovered they have dense breast tissue.

Dr. Mengin says: “There are now 38 states that have created a dense breast notification law of some sort. In Colorado, the law says we have to provide notification to any woman if we discover she has dense breast tissue. If a woman has dense breast tissue, we will need to send her a letter with the notification that you do have dense breast tissue and exactly what that means in layman's terms.”

In our next story, Dr. Mengin will address fears and concerns women may have about mammograms in general, she’ll explain what a thermogram is and also talk about the very low-dose radiation exposure someone gets specifically from a mammogram.

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