Why your mammogram could be hiding a deadly secret - WNEM TV 5

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Why your mammogram could be hiding a deadly secret

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SAGINAW, MI (WNEM) -

It's a hidden danger that can be a deadly reality for women across the country - breast cancer.

For years, mammograms have given women the upper hand, helping millions detect the deadly disease early.

But in some women with a certain type of breast tissue, mammograms are ineffective.

"The dense breast tissue can basically obscure or hide cancers in the breast on a mammogram," Dr. Mark Ludka said. 

Ludka is the chief of mammography for Covenant Hospital's breast health program. He said about 40 percent of women have dense breast tissue. 

Women's breasts are made up of both fatty and glandular tissue. The higher the proportion of glandular tissue, the more dense.

"As you get more and more glandular tissue, the breast becomes lighter and lighter and it can become more and more difficult to see through that tissue," Ludka said.

He said women with extremely dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer. Unfortunately, 95 percent of women who have dense breasts have no idea.

That's exactly what happened to Nancy Cappello. 

Just weeks after getting the "all clear" on her annual mammogram, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. She survived, but not before a mastectomy and several other painful treatments.

Capello has since dedicated her life to raising awareness of about breast density....creating a group called "are you dense'...

Which is fighting for laws to require doctors to notify patients of their breast density level.

Just this month, Michigan became the 21st state to pass that law.

Starting in June, patients will receive their breast density level along with their mammogram results. 

"With one being a predominantly fatty breast and four being an extremely dense breast," Ludka said.

Once you know you have dense breast, and mammograms may not work for you, what options do you have?

There is a new test doctors say is more effective called an automated whole breast ultrasound.

Last June, Covenant's Breast Health Center was the first in Michigan to get one.

"That scans the breasts in their entirety basically from one armpit to the other," Ludka said. 

The patient lies down on her back. Then, the technologist then scans the breasts in overlapping vertical rows.

"You're assured that there isn't any breast tissue that's excluded," Ludka said. 

Those thousands of images are played back in a loop by the doctor who, unlike in a mammogram, is looking for dark spots.

"I met that criteria to have it done," Michelle Guzman said. 

Despite having a clean mammogram, Guzman asked to have the whole breast ultrasound. Doctors noticed something in her results and had her come back for further testing.

"I was worried, but I was relieved at the same time," she said. 

Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing.

Ludka urges women who have dense breasts to get this additional scan.

"The best chance we have to cure cancer is to discover it or find it as early as possible," he said. 

The American Cancer Society recommends women 40 and older get mammograms each year.

Ludka said women with dense breasts or even breast implants, which can also obscure mammogram scans, should get the additional automated whole breast ultrasound to rule out hidden cancers.

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