Dense breasts bill aims to save lives

Portion of Senate Bill 879

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV) A new law goes into effect in Michigan on June 1 that centers around mammograms and specific information related to breast cancer.

Senate Bill 879 requires doctors to notify women if they have dense breasts. Dense breast tissue shows up white on a mammogram, and so does tumors. That makes it difficult or even impossible to spot cancer. Women with dense breast tissue have an increased risk of breast cancer and should get additional screening.

“This is the first time we have a game changer in breast cancer.” Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch

Lawyer, breast density advocate, and West Michigan resident Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch helped write the bill. She has dense breasts, and that kept doctors from seeing her breast cancer in multiple mammograms.

“In my mind, if you don’t give women their density information, you’re withholding crucial medical information that could kill them.”

‘The Best Kept Secret’

Some call breast density the best kept secret when it comes to breast cancer. Dr. David Strahle is a breast density advocate who testified in Lansing to get the bill passed. He has researched breast density since 2009.

Some women have breasts that are mostly fat and others have breasts that are dense, containing fiberglandular breast and connective tissue. The denser your breasts are, the more white appears on a mammogram. The problem is, breast cancer appears white on a mammogram as well. Breast density covers the cancer, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to detect. It’s often described as trying to see a snowflake in a snowstorm.

Image of dense breast tissue
“If I want to be proactive and protect my health,” said Hendricks-Pitsch, “I want to know my density score, and it’s 1, 2, 3, 4. If you’re 3 or 4, talk to your doctor about it. Because those are scores that would most likely hide a tumor on a mammogram. And talk to your doctor about the other kind of screening test you should use to see through that.”

Dr. Strahle is a strong advocate of breast MRI, but there are other tests too: tomosynthesis, ultrasound, molecular breast imaging, thermal imaging, and contrast enhanced spectral mammography.

It was an MRI that revealed Hendricks-Pitsch had breast cancer. That’s when she learned she had dense breasts. Before that, she had numerous mammograms but was never told she had dense breasts. It was never revealed to her that she was at higher risk and she believes that almost killed her.

Making a Change

Hendricks-Pitsch began talking about breast density and found others didn’t know about it either. So began the journey of a lawyer facing two of the biggest fights of her life: overcoming breast cancer and changing the law in Michigan.

Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch
Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch

State Representative Winnie Brinks worked with Hendricks-Pitsch and eventually introduced the bill in Lansing. It got opposition from the state’s medical societies and it took a long time to get a hearing, due to Lansing politics.

“I repeatedly said on this issue in particular, cancer doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican. We need to come together on this,” Brinks said.

It took three years for Senate Bill 879 to pass. On June 1, Michigan will become the 21st state to have laws about breast density notification.

“Having the bill passed is a tight mix of emotion. It’s a sense of accomplishment and hope that we can help women in the future, said Hendricks-Pitsch. “That’s the coating on a big ball of anger. I’m still resentful we couldn’t do it sooner and save more women and it had to come to this. It’s not right when you as a patient are leading the way to better medicine.”

On the same day Hendricks-Pitsch told her story to state lawmakers at a committee hearing, she lost her cousin to breast cancer.

“I got on the bus after testifying, I knew she was struggling in her last hours of life, and I found out she held on until we finished testifying and got on the bus. So I think of Terri,” Hendricks-Pitsch said.

It was for her cousin Terri — for all women in Michigan — that she lobbied for the bill.

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