Breast density info to be focus of breast screening program review

Health PEI is planning a review of the provincial breast cancer screening program within the next year, and one of the focal points will be how and when information about breast density is shared with patients.

Health PEI says women with dense breasts are screened twice as often for cancer, but aren't told why

Dense breast tissue appears white on a regular mammogram in the same way that cancer does, so it can be harder for a radiologist to detect cancer. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Health PEI is planning a review of the provincial breast cancer screening program within the next year, and one of the focal points will be how and when information about breast density is shared with patients.

Officials want to assess how the program compares to other provinces, in order to identify areas for improvement. 

"What we're doing here on P.E.I. around dense breasts is exactly the same as what any other publicly funded jurisdiction in the country is doing. And when we get more evidence then we will follow what the evidence says, whatever that would be," said Gailyne MacPherson, director of diagnostic imaging at Health PEI.

What are dense breasts? 

Breasts are considered dense if they have a density of more than 75 per cent, according to MacPherson. She said breast density can make it more difficult to detect cancer. 

"In the industry, an easy mammogram to read would have mostly a greyish sort of consistency. As the image gets more dense, it looks more white," she said. 

If nobody asks any questions, it probably is not explained.- Gailyne MacPherson

"With more density on the image it can make small structures that are there or small calcifications that are there, more difficult to see." 

Currently, women on P.E.I. who have dense breasts are not referred for ultrasound screening. MacPherson said Health PEI tried that practice in the past, but it did not improve rates of cancer detection.

Patients not told about dense breasts

MacPherson says the only way to determine whether someone has greater density is to have a mammogram.

Women with greater density are currently screened twice as often, but patients are not currently told why they're screened more often.

Gailyne MacPherson says Health PEI will review how and when breast density information is shared with patients. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

"The way that our program works is we recommend when you come back. So you would get a letter in the mail saying come back in a year for follow-up," MacPherson said. 

"If nobody asks any questions, it probably is not explained. If the patient phones us back and asks questions or contacts their physicians to discuss why it is that they're coming back every year, that information is available."

Comprehensive review

MacPherson said she doesn't know at this point if it would be beneficial for patients to receive information about having dense breasts — and that is something the review will look at. 

"We would need to be sure that we were providing valuable information, and information that the patients could use, and understood what the meaning and the implications were for that information," she said.

MacPherson expects the review will happen in the next year. As well as looking at practices around breast density, she says it will be "a comprehensive look at the whole program." 

More P.E.I. news

With files from Jessica Doria-Brown

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