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October 11, 2011

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


SACRAMENTO – Governor Jerry Brown has vetoed State Senator Joe Simitian’s (D-Palo Alto) bill to improve breast cancer detection, notwithstanding the bill’s broad bipartisan support (35-1 in the Senate, 66-6 in the Assembly). Senate Bill 791 required that following a mammogram, women 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.

“The Governor’s veto is an immense disappointment,” Simitian said. “The legislation simply required that information that is already shared between doctors also be shared with the patient herself. It’s about a patient’s right to know.” Simitian noted that, “this two-sentence notice would have enabled women to be effective advocates for their own health.”

“The veto,” said Simitian, “means that opportunity is lost.” Simitian did say, however, “I’m heartened that the Governor’s veto message holds out some hope.” The Governor acknowledged “everyone’s right to information about their own health,” and that, “For women, that likely includes information about breast density.” 

“The Governor’s primary concern,” said Simitian, “appears to be about the precise language of the notice proposed. Looking ahead, I’m hopeful we can find common ground. I truly do believe it’s a life saver.”
A January 2011 study by the Mayo Clinic found that in women with dense breast tissue 75 percent of cancer is missed by mammography alone.

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,” Simitian continued, “ignorance is not bliss. What you don’t know can hurt you.”

“This bill was about giving patients the information they need to make informed decisions about their own bodies and their own health,” Simitian said. “Senate Bill 791 would also have saved 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 for women with extremely dense breast tissue is five times greater than the risk for women with low breast density. 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, and only discovered that she had dense breasts after completion of her treatment for breast cancer.

“No one should have to go through what I did unnecessarily. Women have the right to know about the risk factors they face and the limits of mammography,” said Colton. “Senate Bill 791 would have provided women with that important information, and so I will continue my efforts to make sure that women are informed by their doctors about their breast density.”

Simitian praised Colton’s initiative in suggesting the legislation. “Amy Colton has been determined that other patients have access to the information that was withheld from her.”

During this past year, Colton visited the State Capitol a half dozen times to testify before members of the Legislature, and to visit individual legislators and their staffs to lobby on behalf of the bill. “Amy Colton’s story is a compelling one,” Simitian said. “But it is particularly compelling because her experience is representative of so many other women around the state.”

The measure was supported by the California Nurses Association, the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, the California Association of Health Underwriters, Breast Cancer Fund, the California National Organization for Women, Ravenswood Family Health Center, Democratic Activists for Women Now, the Shelia R. Veloz Breast Imaging Center and the California Communities United Institute. 

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

For more information on Senate Bill 791, visit For more information on dense breast tissue visit