Dealing with dense breasts and other abnormal mammogram findings

Women going in for mammograms may be told they have dense breasts—a double whammy that makes it tough to detect breast tumors (which are also dense) and makes it more likely they’ll develop breast cancer. But a reassuring new study finds that breast cancer patients who have dense breast tissue aren’t any more like to die of their cancer than those who don’t.

The study, published Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that while breast cancers are often diagnosed later in those with dense breasts, they’re not more aggressive or life threatening than other tumors detected a little earlier in less dense tissue. In the study involving 9,000 breast cancer patients followed for nearly 7 years, the National Cancer Institute researchers did find that obese women with less dense breast tissue had a significantly higher risk of dying from breast cancer as did any patient diagnosed with a tumor larger than two centimeters in size.

“Risk factors for the development of breast cancer may not necessarily be the same as factors influencing the risk of death from breast cancer once it has developed,” wrote the researchers.

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Women, though, shouldn’t ignore a finding of “dense breasts” on their mammograms since, after family history, it’s the biggest predictor of breast cancer risk. When combined with a suspicious finding on a mammogram, followup testing or exams may be required.

Paying for this additional testing, however, may be tough for those who don’t have adequate insurance or—more commonly in Massachusetts with its health insurance requirement—have a high deductible that they can’t afford to meet before their coverage kicks in.

A new initiative from Planned Parenthood might make paying for that followup testing a little easier. The national organization is dispersing donations it received after the controversial move by the Susan G Komen Foundation to stop providing grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer detection programs. The Massachusetts Planned Parenthood affiliate received a $20,000 grant last week to help low-income women pay for additional testing for breast abnormalities that aren’t covered by their insurance, according to Dianne Luby, president of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts.

“We previously received $85,000 from these national donations to pay for preventive care like Pap smears and clinical exams,” said Luby. But often women can’t afford to go to a specialist for followup testing like a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound when an exam conducted by a medical provider at Planned Parenthood detects a breast lump or other abnormality suggestive of breast cancer.

“These funds may help undocumented immigrants, those with high deductible plans, or those going on and off Medicaid or exchanges,” said Luby. Unfortunately, the small grant won’t be able to cover the exorbitant expenses of treating breast cancer.