In 2009, at age 47, I was shocked to be diagnosed with a later stage breast cancer. I was what you would describe as a "health nut." I exercised daily, followed a mostly vegetarian, organic diet and kept my weight within a healthy range.
I performed monthly self-exams and had no family history of any type of cancer. I followed my doctor's instructions for regular checkups and screenings, including annual mammograms, starting when I was 40. Every year I received a form letter telling me that no cancer was found.
Mammography was unable to detect my cancer in an early stage because I have a condition called "dense breast tissue."
The shock of my diagnosis and the ordeal of treatment I endured have made me determined to give other women a better chance of being diagnosed before their cancer has spread. That is why I am so heartened by the legislative approval of a resolution authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to declare Aug. 8 to be "Are You Dense? Day."
Forty percent of women tested by mammograms have dense breast tissue, which not only increases the risk of developing cancer, but can hide cancer on a mammogram, because both the tissue and the cancer appear white.
Though I am a nurse, I was, like 90 percent of women, unaware of my own breast density and the risks it posed.
For women with extremely dense breast tissue, the risk of cancer is about five times greater than for women with low breast density. A
The message of "Are You Dense? Day" is that women should have regular mammograms, and when they do, they should ask their doctor about their breast density and then discuss with their doctor whether, based on all their risk factors, additional screening might benefit them.
The treatment I underwent for breast cancer was brutal: five surgeries (including a mastectomy), 16 rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of daily radiation treatments and ongoing hormone therapy that will continue for five to 10 years. In addition, as anyone who has survived cancer will attest, I continue to struggle every day with the aftermath: the permanent physical side effects as well as the ongoing psychological challenges that one faces when one's life is threatened.
Legislation introduced by Simitian would require that the mammogram report sent to a patient include information on breast density, information already included on the report a radiologist sends to the doctor.
Simitian's SB1538 has 32 co-authors in the Senate and 52 in the Assembly.
After all my treatments, I am feeling healthy and tests show no evidence of cancer. It would be my hope to spare all women the ordeal I went through, though of course, that is not possible. On "Are You Dense? Day," make a plan to learn about your breast density.
It could save your life.
Amy Colton, a cancer survivor, is a registered nurse who lives in Santa Cruz. Her experience was the basis for state Sen. Joe Simitian's introduction of legislation to notify women of their breast density.