[Image: Courtesy of Lesley McCave]

According to the American Cancer Society, American women have about a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer during their lifetimes. Age, lifestyle and a family history of the disease are all well-known risk factors, but a less-documented one is breast density, a benign condition that affects up to half of American women ages 40 to 74. For these individuals, the odds of developing breast cancer increase as much as six-fold, partly because dense breast tissue appears solid white on mammograms, meaning tumors may go unnoticed. This isn’t the only reason for the higher risk, but the others are as yet undetermined.

But how does a woman know if she even has dense breast tissue? Density shows up on a mammogram but can’t actually be felt, which is why they’re technically referred to as “mammographically dense breasts.” At present, 32 states are required to notify these women about their breast density by mail after a mammogram, with a further three required to provide women with general information about the condition.

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So if the reasons for a higher breast cancer risk in women with dense breasts haven’t yet been discovered, what can we (yes, I’m one of them) do to empower ourselves? One way is to supplement annual mammograms and monthly self-exams with an MRI or ultrasound. These procedures can detect tumors at an earlier stage, potentially increasing an individual’s survival rates and/or reducing the need for radiation/chemotherapy.

I was recently invited to try a session of the SonoCiné Automated Whole Breast Ultrasound (AWBUS) at the Hall Center in Santa Monica, one of three locations in Los Angeles that provide the service. The other two include the Breast Ultrasound Center (BUC) in Pasadena, where radiologist Kevin Kelly, who created SonoCiné, is based.

The Hall Center founder and medical director Prudence Hall, MD, offers this “new gold standard of breast imaging technology” to all her female patients: those with dense breast tissue or implants, and even those under 40 (the recommended age to begin annual mammograms.)

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On the day of my service at the spacious facility, I completed a consultation form and was then shown to a room by my therapist, Jasmine. After donning what looks like a mesh sports bra, which keeps breasts in place for accurate imaging, I lay down on the table while Jasmine operated the device’s robotic ultrasound wand, scanning it over the entire breast, including the underarm/lymph node area. I felt no pain, uncomfortable compression or squeezing. She then repeated the procedure on the other side.

In less than 30 minutes, around 3,000 high-resolution images are captured and recorded to video, which is then analyzed by a radiologist. The patient receives the results within three days. I was grateful for two things: that mine were normal, and that I live where the law says I must be informed that I have dense breast tissue in the first place. Shouldn’t that be the norm?

The downside to supplementary procedures such as SonoCiné? Currently few (if any) insurance companies cover them, and although the cost (around $360) may be palatable to some, it’s certainly prohibitive to many. Here’s hoping that more insurances start to step up. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a crucial component part of any woman’s wellness regimen.

—by Lesley McCave

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