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Failed Mammograms, Dense Breasts, Breast Cancer

In Australia, all women have a mammogram annually until they are aged 70 (when it moves to being every two years).  In New Zealand, we are entitled to have a free mammogram every two years if you are a women aged 45 to 69.

In February 2022, our wonderful sister in law Kerrie went for her mammogram and the results were all clear - nothing wrong.

In November 2022 as Kerrie was getting dressed, her arm brushed her left breast and she felt a lump. After seeing the doctor and then having more tests and seeing specialists, she was informed that she had a tumour that was almost 3cm in size.

The mammogram had missed it.

The oncologist confirmed that it had been there for quite a while (definitely pre that mammogram and maybe the one before).

The photo above is Kerrie ringing the bell after six months of gruelling chemotherapy designed to shrink the tumour.  It started within days of her diagnosis and finished about 10 days ago.  Yesterday, she had surgery to remove the area around the tumour (which fortunately had shrunk to almost nothing according to the scans).  In a few weeks she starts radiation therapy.  This treatment will take up at least a year of Kerrie's life and impacts on her and her family, emotionally, psychologically, as well as financially.

But the reason for this article is a thing called 'dense breasts'.  Kerrie wasn't aware that she has dense breasts and apparently mammograms are only 60% effective at identifying breast cancer if the person has dense breasts - which was the case in Kerries case (and in another friend of ours who has recently had a double mastectomy).

You can't tell if you have dense breasts, you have to ask.  They aren't defined by touch, it is to do with the internal structure of the breasts.  If you have dense breasts it is strongly recommended that you have additional screening tests.

When I heard about the 'dense breasts' issue, I thought, oh, its been a while since I had my mammogram (remember, supposed to be recalled every two years).  It appears that the system has failed - in the Waikato at least - as when I looked back on my calendar, my last mammogram was August 2020, with no recall.  So I went online and booked myself in.  By the time I could get slotted in, it will be three years since I had a mammogram, and I will definitely be asking about 'dense breasts'.

In summary:

  1. There is an article at the bottom of this post from ABC in Australia explaining more about dense breasts, please read it - it may help you, a friend or a family member.

  2. Please check when you last had a mammogram (if you are a woman), and make sure that you have this screening every two years.  You can make an appointment by filling in the form at https://www.timetoscreen.nz/breast-screening/sign-up/.

  3. When you have your mammogram, ensure that you ask about whether you have 'dense breasts' and ask what additional screening you should be having.

  4. Although they aren't fun, try and do breast checks yourself.

Should women know about their breast density? [Article from ABC]



 

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