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NY law eyes dense tissue as risk for breast cancer

A file image of breast tissue seen in

A file image of breast tissue seen in a mammogram. Credit: AP

ALBANY - A new state law could save the lives of an estimated 2,500 New York women a year by requiring their mammography reports to tell them whether they have dense breast tissue, and thus face a higher risk of cancer, a Long Island activist said Wednesday.

JoAnn Pushkin, a cancer survivor who spearheaded an effort for the law, said dense breast tissue is a more significant risk factor for cancer than whether a woman's mother or sister has been stricken. The group is trying to raise awareness about the new law -- which went into effect last Saturday.

Dense breast tissue, a characteristic of 40 percent of women, looks white in a mammography exam -- just like lump. Pushkin, a Dix Hills resident and founder of D.E.N.S.E. NY., said that's why her cancer was missed for five years despite annual tests.

"I am living the horror of a late-stage cancer diagnosis," said Pushkin, who has endured seven surgeries, eight courses of chemotherapy and 30 of radiation. Pushkin said a recurrence two years ago has left her living her life in the "increments" between six-month blood tests.

The purpose of the new law is to inform women so that those who have dense breast tissue can then discuss with their doctors whether additional tests are advisable, said Assemb. Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern), who sponsored the bill with Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport). Legislators credited Pushkin with being the driving force behind the new law.

Flanagan said some medical providers put up "brick walls" in arguing against the measure by saying, "All you're going to do is scare people."

"That kind of thing really sticks in my craw," Flanagan said. "This is about informing."

The chance of breast cancer recurring is four times higher if a woman has dense breast tissue, according to Pushkin's group.

"We need women to know, and not be patted on the head and told 'Everything is fine,' and sent home," Pushkin said.

Four other states have similar though less comprehensive laws: California, Connecticut, Texas and Virginia. Pushkin said she also was lobbying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to impose a national requirement.

Michelle Bolek, an FDA spokeswoman, said, "FDA is early in process of drafting regulations that we believe will address the density issue, but we cannot disclose additional details at this time."

This story has been changed to correct that JoAnn Pushkin is founder of D.E.N.S.E. NY, which is not affiliated with Are You Dense Advocacy Inc.