Jaffee, Flanagan Promote Life-Saving Bill to Improve Early Detection of Breast Cancer

May 1, 2012
-Dense Breast Tissue Obscures Mammogram Detection of Tumors in Up to Half of Screenings-
- Survivors’ Stories Tell of Preventable Tragedy, Need for Greater Patient Notification -

Albany, NY – Joined by women’s health advocates, cancer survivors, and medical professionals as part of the Legislature’s first-ever “Breast Density Awareness Day,” Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-95th District) and Senator John Flanagan (R-2nd District) today urged passage of life-saving legislation (A9586/S6769) to ensure women with this condition are no longer effectively denied equal access to early cancer detection.

This joint legislation will require insurance companies to cover supplemental screenings for women with dense breast tissue. According to highly respected medical studies, breast cancer is four to six times more likely in women with dense breast tissue, and mammograms fail to detect approximately 40% to 50% of tumors in dense tissue as the condition obscures their presence.

The legislation also requires every mammography report for women with dense breast tissue to state in plain, non-technical language that the patient has dense breast tissue, and should discuss the potential need for additional screenings with their doctor. This notification ensures those with dense breast tissue are better equipped to speak with their doctors and make decisions about their care, leading to earlier detection and greater survival rates.

“When it comes to breast cancer, women have a right to know what they’re up against,” said Assemblywoman Jaffee. “This bill will empower women to fully understand the risks posed by dense breast tissue and ensure that, should they need it, additional screening coverage is available. We lose far too many lives to breast cancer that could and should have been detected, so it is critical women have every screening tool at their disposal.”

“Breast density and its impact on breast cancer are topics that many people across our state – men and women – are unaware of and one that can have a significant impact on the treatment of this terrible disease. It is critical that we raise awareness of this issue and provide women with access to the proper diagnostic tools and information to help them safeguard their health. This will save lives and I am proud to work with Assemblywoman Jaffee to make sure we enact this legislation into law this year,” stated Senator Flanagan.

Among the loudest voices in support of the legislation was JoAnn Pushkin. Pushkin, of Dix Hills, is herself a breast cancer survivor-turned-advocate and Executive Director of Are You Dense Advocacy, Inc. It was her advocacy that triggered the bill’s introduction. She first contacted Flanagan and Jaffee to share her story and lobby for action on breast density. Ms. Pushkin’s cancer went undiagnosed for five years as her annual mammograms were unable to detect a tumor through dense breast tissue. Ms. Pushkin has since gone on to offer help in the drafting of this legislation. She continues to advocate for it to become law not only in New York State, but also in 12 other states and at the federal level.

“It’s hard to protect yourself against what you haven’t even been told is a threat, and it’s impossible to begin a dialog about additional screening tools if you don’t even know what you should be asking about,” Ms. Pushkin said. “This legislation is about a patient’s right to know a critical risk factor in her individual health profile, so she can have an informed conversation with her physicians about planning an effective course of action.”

Ms. Pushkin was not alone in this view. Among those calling for the legislation’s passage were several other individuals who personally confronted the harm caused by dense breast tissue, and whose tragic experiences led them to become advocates for expanded screenings and patient notification.

One of these advocates is New York City native Hallie Leighton. At age 38, Leighton received a mammogram that read "normal," even though a report her radiologist did not share with her indicated she had extremely dense breasts. This "false negative" mammogram ultimately failed to detect a tumor in her breast, and a year later she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, which is metastatic and incurable; the 5-year survival rate for Stage IV breast cancer is one in six.

“If I had been alerted to the need for further screening, my cancer could have been caught before it spread,” Leighton said. “’Normal’ is not synonymous with unreadable. This legislation is needed to protect women from tragedies resulting from lack of disclosure.”

Also speaking out on behalf of the bill was Townsend Montant of Shelter Island, whose wife Teresa tragically passed away from breast cancer in October of last year. Due to her dense breast tissue, and despite her commitment to getting annual screenings, mammograms failed to detect Teresa’s cancer. She had never been notified that she had dense breast tissue.

In October of 2009, she found a lump in her breast that a mammogram had missed just five months earlier. Two years later, after countless rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and an unsuccessful clinical trial treatment, Teresa finally succumbed to her illness. Today, Teresa’s husband Townsend is an advocate for women with dense breast tissue, both in honor of his wife’s memory and on behalf of the countless others that he hopes will never have to endure her struggle.

“Every year, Teresa went for mammograms religiously, and did everything to be proactive about her health,” Montant said. “But her preventive care didn’t prevent her cancer. There’s no way a mammogram can read normal and then five months later an 8cm tumor appears. In Teresa’s case, the standard screening process completely failed, and I refuse to accept that any other women should have their health put in danger because they weren’t notified they might be at risk.”

Also joining Jaffee and Flanagan on Tuesday were numerous medical professionals who stressed the urgent need for this legislation. Among them was Dr. Thomas Kolb, widely regarded as leader in the field of detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. Dr. Kolb has served as an assistant clinical professor of Radiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and has lectured throughout the U.S. and internationally on the topic of breast cancer detection and diagnosis. He has published numerous groundbreaking studies on the effectiveness of various breast cancer diagnosis and treatment methods, and is a pioneer in testing and evaluating new screening technologies.

“People with dense breasts not only have a substantially increased likelihood of developing breast cancer versus those without, but increased density is also the single most important factor that contributes to mammograms’ failure to diagnose cancer,” Dr. Kolb said. “Sixty percent of cancer will go mammographically undetected in the women with the densest breasts. Additional breast screening with ultrasound in normal and moderately high-risk women and MRI in very high-risk women more than doubles the number of diagnosed small and highly treatable cancers that would otherwise have been missed mammographically. Still, those with dense breasts must not abandon screening mammograms.”