New Brunswick

All this cancer survivor wants for Christmas is breast density notification

A breast cancer survivor says she's still waiting for the New Brunswick government to follow through on an election promise that would ensure women receive details about their breast density. 

Dense breast tissue can obscure cancer on a mammogram image

Breast cancer survivor Kathy Kaufield launched an online campaign in 2018 urging New Brunswick political leaders to commit to ensuring women are informed of their breast density. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

A breast cancer survivor says she's still waiting for the New Brunswick government to follow through on an election promise that would ensure women receive details about their breast density after mammograms. 

During the 2018 provincial election campaign, Kathy Kaufield of Quispamsis launched an online campaign urging political leaders to commit to ensuring women are informed of their breast density.

The #TellMe campaign launched Aug. 28, and within two weeks the PCs and the Liberals had made commitments. Both Premier Blaine Higgs and former Liberal Party leader Brian Gallant pledged to change density notification policies.

"All I want for Christmas is the New Brunswick health minister to announce a date for when women here in New Brunswick are going to get their breast density notification,"said Kaufield, a breast cancer survivor. "Because that keeps me up at night." 

The campaign also sparked other provinces, including Nova Scotia and P.E.I., to change their policies.

"I was doing a happy dance at my desk," Kaufield said Tuesday.  

'A lot of women don't know about it'

Radiologists say dense breast tissue can obscure cancers on a mammogram, but the majority of Canadian women are unlikely to be aware of the risk or their breast density.

An estimated 80,000 New Brunswick women have dense breasts, and 18,000 of them would fall into the "highest density" category, where the accuracy of a mammogram is about 50 per cent, according to studies.

"It's a small issue but it's an important issue," Kaufield said. "I was quite amazed at how hard it is to get it on the radar, this important health topic."

Advocates say women should be given density information on their mammogram reports so they can seek additional, more effective screening. 

"A lot of women don't know about it," Kaufield said. "And it's important. … I'm kind of on a mission for New Brunswick women to be notified about their breast density."

Kaufield was given the all-clear following her regular mammogram screening in June 2015. Six months later she discovered a lump.

She found it on her own by chance in a Saint Andrews hotel after forgetting to pack her shower puff. While cleaning by hand, she felt the growth.

The mother of two was told an aggressive, grade three tumour had been overlooked in the screening.

"I know in my case, I would've been more vigilant with my self-exams," she said. "I would've made some lifestyle changes to reduce my overall cancer risk. And I would've talked to my doctor about other screening options."

Dense breast tissue can obscure cancer in a mammogram image. (Submitted by Dense Breasts Canada)

Next came a "gruelling and expensive" year of treatment, including 20 weeks of chemotherapy.

"Why can't we be telling women when they get that letter, 'OK, you've had a clear screening, but you need to be mindful that you have dense breasts and this is what it means,'" she said. 

Since New Brunswick's election campaign, the cancer survivor has met with Health Minister Ted Flemming on two different occasions.

The Department of Health says it's working with both regional health authorities to standardize the way breast density is classified.

New process expected in 2020

Bruce MacFarlane, a spokesperson for the department, said its cancer network is working with the two regional health authorities on a provincewide methodology for reporting mammographic breast density and informing women about their breast density after routine screening.

"The implementation of the standardized approach to reporting of breast density will be accompanied by an evidence-based provincial education and awareness strategy for women and their health care providers," he said in an emailed statement. 

The goal is to implement the new process in 2020, but MacFarlane wasn't more specific.

In the meantime, Kaufield said, women should ask their doctors to see their breast density reports in their health records.

"It's potentially life-saving information that they should have."

With files from Information Morning Fredericton, Colin McPhail

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