Wisconsin law now requires doctors to notify women if dense breast tissue is found in their mammograms. Dense breast tissue is made up of connective tissue and fat. Though breasts become fattier as a woman ages, two-thirds of pre-menopausal women and one-fourth of post-menopausal women have dense breast tissue. Tumors can be hidden by this tissue, meaning that the risk of breast cancer goes up as breast tissue becomes denser. Cancer and dense breast tissue both appear white on mammograms, so, according to Giakoumis Spear, the Chief of Breast Imaging at NorthShore University HealthSystem, “It’s like trying to search for cancer through the clouds.”
This new law means that women will know what their density level is from the beginning, can seek additional testing and potentially detect signs of cancer much earlier on. At Giakoumis’ practice, “they already supplement their patients’ mammograms with automated breast ultrasounds” which can improve the detection of breast cancer by 55 percent. This is not a general practice at every clinic, however, because mammograms are intending to simply screen for ailments. They are meant for women who report no abnormal symptoms, whereas ultrasounds are diagnostic for women whose mammograms have reported a suspicious irregularity or density within the breast.
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Wisconsin is the 35th state to require doctors to inform women about dense breast tissue. While this law is a significant step forward for women’s health and will likely save many lives, it can make one wonder why its implementation took so long. Informing a woman that her dense breast tissue could hide a tumor seems like common sense. However, in reality, the lack of a mandate to do so is unsurprising given the low level of concern for women’s health in the past.
Women’s health does not have a history of prioritization in the medical field. For years, clinical trial participants have been predominantly men, leading to a lack of understanding for differences in how men and women show signs of illnesses and respond to treatment.
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For example, 2017 study found that because a system to detect heart problems was designed using a predominantly male testing group, women were more likely to get inaccurate results. In addition to cancer and heart disease, researchers are uncovering differences in how genders experience type 2 diabetes and strokes, as well as differences in the best way to treat each gender for these illnesses.
In addition to a long history of inaccurate understandings of how women experience and are treated for certain diseases, women’s pain is also less likely to be taken seriously by medical professionals. A 2001 study concluded that because women have more coping mechanisms for pain, there exists a perception that women have higher pain tolerances than men. The study adds that even though women report pain to healthcare providers more often “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’”
The underrepresentation of women in medical research coupled with medical professionals taking women’s pain less seriously may contribute to the fact that legislators haven’t deemed a mandate on informing women about dense breast tissue until now.
Even so, the new law should be received with optimism moving forward. It not only shows that society is putting more importance on women’s health and safety but giving women more opportunities to take control of their own bodies and wellbeing. Now, women know to seek additional testing to ensure that they do not have breast cancer or, at the very least, catch breast cancer at an early stage. The history and perceptions of women’s health are discouraging, but this new law can be viewed a sign that women’s health is being taken more seriously and that medical practices are changing for the better.
Juliet Dupont ([email protected]) is a freshman intending to major in political science and journalism.