My Sister’s Advanced Breast Cancer Diagnosis – Dense Breast Tissue the Culprit

My sister, Diann, has Stage 3 Breast Cancer – a 3 cm tumor that has infiltrated to at least four (4) lymph nodes.  We were shocked as it was so much more advanced than we thought.  The culprit of not finding it sooner – DENSE BREAST TISSUE.

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows I am constantly preaching about DENSE BREAST TISSUE.  If you have it, you can be Stage 4 before you know anything is even going on as often tumors are not picked up on mammograms. Dense breast tissue appears white on mammograms and so do tumors.  I’ve heard from COUNTLESS women about this fact many have gotten their yearly mammograms and got the all clear right up until diagnosis.  Now, my own sister had dense breast tissue, didn’t realize it and was told only once by our family doctor back when she was having children in her 20s and 30s.  She really did not know what that could mean for her and was never told.  On her regular mammogram, which was a 3D technology/tomosynthesis mammogram which is supposed to be better at detecting tumors in dense breast tissue, an area of compressed tissue showed.  That’s all.  THANK GOD our local hospital biopsied, not because they thought it was cancer, but based on family history of my diagnosis and my mom’s diagnosis, they wanted to make sure nothing was hiding behind that area.

Well, hiding it was.   Diann’s breast surgeon at the University of Michigan says it is a 3 cm tumor (well over an inch in diameter), and she could not even feel it in my sister’s breast, and Diann is a B cup.   I mean that seems almost impossible to believe!   Diann said because of me, she gave herself breast exams weekly as she was so paranoid.  She never felt a thing.

Now Diann is forced to endure surgery, chemotherapy, radiation – thankfully, she was Her 2 Negative, so she will not need Herceptin.  They will do a Lumpectomy first, then treatment, then after the genetic testing comes back, she may opt for a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction after everything else is finished.

This makes me MORE DETERMINED to get the word out there about dense breast tissue.  It is not something easy to talk about it.  If you post it on Facebook, some uninformed men make lewd comments – I have had it happen.  But the discussion is necessary.  Your life depends upon it.

This from breastcancer.org about dense breast tissue:

Dense breasts have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue compared to breasts that aren’t dense. One way to measure breast density is the thickness of tissue on a mammogram. Another categorizes breast patterns into four types depending on which type of tissue makes up most of the breast. Still, no one method of measuring breast density has been agreed upon by doctors. Breast density is not based on how your breasts feel during your self-exam or your doctor’s physical exam. Dense breasts have more gland tissue that makes and drains milk and supportive tissue (also called stroma) that surrounds the gland. Breast density can be inherited, so if your mother has dense breasts, it’s likely you will, too.

Research has shown that dense breasts:

  • can be 6 times more likely to develop cancer
  • can make it harder for mammograms to detect breast cancer; breast cancers (which look white like breast gland tissue) are easier to see on a mammogram when they’re surrounded by fatty tissue (which looks dark).

Twenty-two states have laws that say women who have dense breast tissue must be notified.  Obviously, this doesn’t always happen.

So what to do?

1)  Ask the question of every health care provider you have if you have dense breast tissue.

2)  If you have dense breast tissue, even if your mammogram comes back okay, INSIST, INSIST, INSIST on an ultrasound.  Call your insurance company.  Tell them you have dense breast tissue.  In most cases it covers.  If it doesn’t, ask to talk to a Supervisor.  If you can’t get them to pay, do it anyway.  Make payments.  Your life is worth it.

3) If anything is questionable on the ultrasound, INSIST, INSIST, INSIST on further testing.  What is further testing?

A breast MRI or the newest technology – Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI).  I just wrote about this technology in February, 2015 as recent studies have shown it quadruples detection of breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue!!  https://denise4health.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/molecular-breast-imaging-mbi-quadruples-detection-of-breast-cancer-in-women-with-dense-breast-tissue/

PLEASE, I beg you, have this conversation with your doctors, with your mammogram provider, and with your friends.  It is absolute hell to watch my sister go through an advanced breast cancer diagnosis.  It is far worse emotionally than my own diagnosis was.  You do not want any one you love to go through this when it could be prevented.

Breast Cancer Myths – do not believe the lies

Before I was a Stage 3 Breast Cancer Patient, I believed all of the following statements.  Many of you do as well.

“I have no family history of breast cancer, so I don’t worry about it.”

“Breast cancer doesn’t hurt, so I know this breast pain isn’t cancer.”

“Very young women and very old women don’t get breast cancer.”

Those are all FALSE statements, and I’m going to briefly go through these widespread fallacies one by one.

I HAVE NO FAMILY HISTORY OF BREAST CANCER, SO I DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT

The facts are that 75% to 80% of all breast cancer is NON-genetic.  So if you DO NOT have a family history, you are far more at risk.  Most of us have been wrongly taught by television, magazine articles and other celebrity gossip that family history is the number one key.   WRONG. 

Certainly, if you have a family history, that is a matter to immediately discuss with your doctor.  But PLEASE do not fall into the thinking that because no family members ever had breast cancer, you will not either.  I will repeat this:  Statistics prove that 75% to 80% of all breast cancer patients have no family history.

I had no relatives for generations and generations with breast cancer.  My mom had no relatives for generations and generations with breast cancer.  A genetic counselor believes it is a “fluke” we both got breast cancer.  Flukes happen.

BREAST CANCER DOESN’T HURT, SO I KNOW THIS BREAST PAIN  ISN’T CANCER

One of my most popular blog posts is one where I warn women that BREAST PAIN CAN BE CANCER!!   Thousands of women have read this post about breast pain and breast cancer.  I have gotten emails from many, many women thanking me for getting this message out because they had no idea.  Some have been diagnosed with breast cancer as a result of it.

I had horrible breast pain a year before my diagnosis.  Relying on Dr. Google instead of my own instincts and what my body was telling me, cost me my breast.  I do not want that to happen to you. When I was diagnosed, my large tumor was in the exact place where the pain was.  An unscientific study of hundreds of breast cancer patients on a popular breast cancer site discovered that over 50% had some type of breast pain before diagnosis.

Please read this:   https://denise4health.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/breast-pain-can-be-cancer/

VERY YOUNG WOMEN AND VERY OLD WOMEN DON’T GET BREAST CANCER

Certainly, I was under that impression.  Until I met the young woman in the chemo chair next to me who was diagnosed at age 21 with Stage 4 breast cancer that had literally eaten through her spine.  Doctors missed it because they thought she was too young for breast cancer.   Recently, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Lindsay Vanderveen, a young mom diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer at age 28.  Lindsay found her lump 6 months after giving birth to her second baby.  Lindsay’s mission is to teach younger woman that they can be at risk for breast cancer and  to do breast self-exams.

Young moms tell me, “I breastfed so that keeps breast cancer away.”  More wrong information because although there are some studies out there that show it MAY reduce your risk for breast cancer, that does not mean it does.  Plus, I have received hundreds of letters from women diagnosed in their 30s.

Many doctors tell their older patients – age 70 and up – that they don’t need to get their mammograms.   My mom was 80 when she found a lump.  She had not had a mammogram in 10 years.  She was one of the lucky ones that found her small lump that turned out to be Stage 1 – no chemo, no radiation for a woman her age.  Age makes no difference – you can get breast cancer and continue to get those mammograms.

Here are some more FALSE statements I hear quite often:

I am a vegetarian and vegetarians don’t get breast cancer.   WRONG.

I’ve been my same weight since high school.  I’m not a candidate for breast cancer.  Mostly overweight women get breast cancer.   WRONG

If I have breast cancer, I don’t want to know about it.  I don’t go looking for it.  Breast cancer won’t kill me.   WRONG

Mammograms cause breast cancer.  WRONG

Men don’t get breast cancer.  WRONG

Please do not believe the lies.  Get your mammograms and if you have ever been told you have dense breast tissue, make sure you get a 3D or Tomosynthesis mammogram PLUS an ultrasound at the very least!!