A new law is on the books in Tennessee that aims to save lives. As of January 1st, women who have mammograms will get a letter telling them if their breast tissue is dense because it can be a risk factor for breast cancer.
State Senator Becky Massey sponsored Senate Bill 745.
"If this legislation saves one life, it's worth it," she said.
So what does this law mean for you? The next time you get a mammogram and a radiologist determines you have dense breast tissue, you will get that information in writing. In the notice it states dense breast tissue may increase your risk of getting cancer and other screening options might be right for you.
"The ultimate goal is to find it early," said Massey.
Breast Surgeon Dr. Caren Gallaher couldn't agree more. She says 50 percent of women have dense breast tissue. But she adds, a letter going to everyone could cause unwarranted concern.
"It's important in knowing what your breast density is. What I don't want to see is people panicking and stampeding to their primary doctors terrified they are going to get breast cancer," said Gallaher.
Dr. Gallaher says there are varying degrees of breast tissue density.
"We know that patients with dense breast tissue, a mammogram alone may not be an accurate screening tool because the tissue is so dense it may actually hide a tumor."
Radiologist Dr. Donna Culhane says given the differences in breast density, the new law presents her with a tough question. She must decide who should undergo additional screening like a breast ultrasound or MRI.
"Fifty percent of mammograms are going to potentially show dense tissue, so I can't consider that 50 percent of women who are having mammograms are high risk and need additional screening exams," said Culhane. "I think it needs to be tailored for each individual based on their risk factors."
And then there is the cost of those additional screenings. Dr. Gallaher says further diagnostic tests may not be covered by insurance, and people may have to pay for the procedures out of pocket.
More than a dozen states have similar breast density laws. Some of them have actually mandated insurance companies pay for the added screenings. That's not the case in Tennessee.
Both Dr. Gallaher and Dr. Culhane say they are preparing for lots of questions from patients and primary care physicians who aren't familiar with the new law.
But when it comes down to it, both those who wrote the law and those bound to uphold say it boils down to talking with your doctor to determine the screening that's right for you.