Exploring women’s knowledge of breast density and experiences of breast cancer screening

As of 2019, 37 US states have breast density notification laws. No qualitative study to date has examined women’s perspectives about breast density in general or by states with and without notification laws.

Breasts contain glandular, connective, and fat tissue. Breast density is a term that depicts the general measure of these various sorts of breast tissue, as observed on a mammogram. Dense breasts have moderately high measures of glandular tissue and fibrous connective tissue and generally low measures of fatty breast tissue.

Women with dense breasts have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with fatty breasts, and the risk increases with increasing breast density. 

Until now, none of the studies has asked women what they know or think about breast density concerning screening they have had.

In a new qualitative study, a team of scientists at Dartmouth and Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center and the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium led by Karen Schifferdecker, Ph.D., MPH, and Anna Tosteson, ScD, sought to explore women’s knowledge and perceptions of breast density and experiences of breast cancer screening across three states with and without notification laws.

The focus group study found that women from all states had varying knowledge about their breast density and breast density in general. Several women were aware of the difficulty of detecting cancer with dense breasts, but only one woman knew that density increased breast cancer risk.

Karen Schifferdecker, Ph.D., MPH, said, “We found that very few women received information about breast density during healthcare visits although some were encouraged to get supplemental imaging or to pay for new types of mammography such as breast tomosynthesis. Women who were offered more imaging or different technology usually thought these were ‘better,’ even though they were given little information about the effectiveness or harms.”

More importantly, all women expressed a strong desire for more information about breast density.

Schifferdecker said, “Women want—and deserve—more usable information about breast cancer risk. More research needs to be done to understand how the medical community can better assist women in making informed decisions related to breast density and screening.”

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