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September 12, 2011

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William Leiter (916) 651-4011 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


SACRAMENTO – State Senator Joe Simitian’s (D-Palo Alto) bill to improve breast cancer detection has passed the State Legislature and now goes to the Governor for consideration.  Senate Bill 791 requires that following a mammogram, patients with dense breast tissue be informed that:

• They have dense breast tissue;
• That dense breast tissue can obscure abnormalities (i.e., cancer) on a mammogram; and that,
• They may wish to discuss the potential value of additional screening(s) with their doctors.

Because dense breast tissue appears white on a mammogram, and cancer also appears white, it can be very difficult to see the cancer. “Which is why,” said Simitian, “it’s so important that a patient be told they have dense breast tissue, and that the dense breast tissue may limit the ability of the mammogram to spot a problem.  When it comes to your health,” said Simitian, “ignorance is not bliss. What you don’t know can hurt you.”
A January 2011 study by the Mayo Clinic found that in women with dense breast tissue 75% of cancer is missed by mammography alone.

SB 791 requires that, for patients with dense breast tissue, two additional sentences be included in the federally required letter that a radiologist must send a patient after performing a mammogram:

“Because your mammogram demonstrates that you have dense breast tissue, which could hide small abnormalities, you might benefit from supplementary screening tests, depending on your individual risk factors.  A report of your mammography results, which contains information about your breast density, has been sent to your physician’s office and you should contact your physician if you have any questions or concerns about this notice.”

“This bill is about giving patients the information they need to make informed decisions about their own bodies and their own health,” said Simitian. Simitian said he introduced the bill because he thinks the “two-sentence notice can save thousands of lives.  But,” he added, “Senate Bill 791 will also save money, because treating cancer in its early stages is far less expensive than battling advanced cancer.”

“Numerous studies show that women with dense breast tissue face a higher risk of developing breast cancer, and studies also show that dense breast tissue is the most frequent reason cancer is missed by mammography,” said Santa Barbara radiologist Judy Dean.  “These two facts mandate that we stop withholding density information from women, so that they can make informed decisions about their health.”

The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in eight women will develop breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer for women with dense breast tissue, more than half of all women, is five times greater, yet the overwhelming majority of women are unaware of their own breast density. Worse, cancer is harder to discern in dense breast tissue.

One of Simitian’s constituents, Amy Colton of Soquel, a registered nurse and a cancer survivor, suggested the bill in Simitian’s annual “There Oughta Be A Law” contest. Colton was never informed of her breast density during years of routine mammograms.  She only discovered that she had dense breast tissue after completion of her treatment for breast cancer, which her mammograms had failed to detect over several years.

“I’m thrilled that the Legislature has recognized the importance of SB 791 to the women of California,” said Colton. “This measure will provide women with important information about their physiology so that they can become more aware of their own personal risk factors for breast cancer. My hope is that Governor Brown will agree that women want to know their breast density, and deserve the opportunity for early detection of breast cancer.”

The measure is supported by the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, the California Nurses Association, the Breast Cancer Fund, the California Association of Health Underwriters, the California Communities United Institute, and California NOW. 

“I’m gratified that my colleagues in the Legislature have passed Senate Bill 791.  This will open up the line of communication between patients and their physicians about an important topic that can save lives,” said Simitian.

Similar legislation has already passed in the state of Connecticut and Texas. Congress and the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and Florida all have related legislation pending.

Note:  The substance of SB 791 was previously contained in another bill, SB 173.  When SB 173 was held up in the Legislature, the language was incorporated into SB 791.  For more information on Senate Bill 791, visit For more information on dense breast tissue visit