Effective Monday, female patients in Michigan who show dense breast tissue during a mammogram must be notified in writing and encouraged to consider additional testing. Supporters of the law feel that these requirements could help detect breast cancer earlier.

What is Dense Breast Tissue?

Breast tissue is composed of several different types of tissue: milk glands, milk ducts and supportive tissue (dense breast tissue) and fatty tissue. When viewed on a mammogram, women with dense breasts have more dense tissue than fatty tissue.  On a mammogram, non-dense breast tissue appears dark and transparent. Dense breast tissue appears as a solid white area on a mammogram, which makes it difficult to see through.

Shortcoming of Mammograms

Dense breast tissue is a normal and common finding. Dense breast tissue itself is not usually a problem, and the vast majority of patients with dense breast tissue do not have cancer. Mammograms remain the “gold standard” for breast cancer detection. The medical community typically recommends beginning yearly mammograms when a woman turns 40 for cancer detection. However, when a patient has dense breast tissue, it may be more difficult to detect cancer with a mammogram. Additional tests such as ultrasounds or MRIs may better detect cancer early in the presence of dense tissue.

Lobbyist Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch told WLNS Channel 6 that she has been fighting for these requirements since her own battle with breast cancer.  Hendricks-Pitsch said, “They all said boy this cancer was really hidden on mammograms from the density….and I thought, how come they all know that and no one tells women that?”   Many activists have worked to expose this issue, such as AreYouDense.org. Many of these organizations are working toward a similar law at the Federal level.

Michigan’s New Law

This law makes Michigan one of about 20 states who have similar laws raising awareness about the limits of mammograms alone for breast cancer screening.  During consideration of the law, some Michigan lawmakers and health providers raised concerns about the extra time demands on doctors, about insurance coverage and about causing unnecessary worry among patients.   “If you get the letter, the first thing I would tell you is not to worry (about dense breast tissue). It’s a common factor,” said Dr. Murray Rebner, chief of breast imaging at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak and a past president of the national Society of Breast Imaging in an interview with Detroit Free Press.

When it comes to cancer, we all know that early detection is key. Patients and their providers can never be too careful. Now, a simple letter will give women in Michigan will have the knowledge to protect themselves.