AUGUSTA — Breast cancer survivors asked Maine lawmakers Wednesday to help warn women who may have cancer their doctors can’t see.

A bill, L.D. 1886, would require physicians to tell women if they have dense breast tissue that could hide tumors and reduce the reliability of mammograms. Doctors often don’t tell patients about the risk factor, advocates say.

“I am only one of thousands of women for whom this bill will come too late,” Barbara Deschenes of Norway said during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Deschenes told lawmakers that she learned three months ago that she had breast cancer that had likely been hidden for five years by dense breast tissue. She is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation and has “great hope for survival,” but said many women die because the cancer goes undiagnosed too long.

“This bill could make a life-and-death difference,” Deschenes said.

Forty percent of women have dense breast tissue that can hide cancers from mammograms, according to a national group called “Are You Dense?” which educates women and policy makers about the risks. Most of the women are not warned by their doctors, the group says.

Maine is one of 15 states that are considering or finalizing legislation to promote awareness about dense breast tissue and cancer, advocates say.

The idea of breast-density warnings is controversial in the medical community. Opposition led California’s governor to veto a bill that called for warnings and encouraged additional screening.

Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, introduced the Maine bill after being contacted by Deschenes.

Supporters say women who are told they have dense breast tissue can talk with their doctors about additional screening using ultrasound. “Without information about our bodies, women are effectively denied the choice,” Deschenes said.

The Maine Medical Association, which represents more than 3,500 physicians and others, opposes the bill.

Andrew McLean, a lobbyist for the group, said the system for classifying breast density is subjective and there is not enough evidence that additional tests are warranted for women with dense tissue.

“We think a more prudent way to address this would be to convene a stakeholder group” to study the issue and how best to raise awareness, he said.

The American College of Radiology says dense breast tissue does affect cancer screening, but the significance is still debatable. Women with dense breast tissue may be unnecessarily worried by mandated warnings, while those without dense tissue may have a false sense of security, the organization says.

A similar law in Connecticut led to a flood of ultrasound exams for women identified as having dense breast tissue. Researchers reported that the additional tests did find cancers that had been missed by mammograms, but they also led to false positives and costly testing.

Rep. Meredith Strang-Burgess, R-Cumberland, a co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, stepped down from her role Wednesday to testify in support of raising awareness about breast density.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer years ago, after having four mammograms that didn’t detect the tumor, she said.

“It’s not necessarily that we’re more prone to getting breast cancer. It’s that if we have it, you can’t see it,” she said.

Strang-Burgess said women should continue to do self-exams, get mammograms and “ask if you have dense breasts.”

The committee could vote on the bill today.

State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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