In 2018, at the age of 48, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her official diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) of the breast. Simply put, “cancer in the original place.” Luckily, they caught the cancer very early on. This was thanks to a post on social media from her former high school classmate. This classmate was a cancer survivor and urged her friends to make the appointments for their mammograms. My sister’s first mammogram led to a second mammogram which led to an ultrasound and then a biopsy. The biopsy confirmed it was breast cancer. Due to this early detection, my sister was able to opt for a double mastectomy and did not need any further treatment. She still gets yearly checkups, and I am so happy and relieved to report that she is still cancer free.
Because of my sister’s breast cancer story, when I turned 40 years old, getting a mammogram was immediately added to my to-do list. I knew the importance of early detection firsthand. When I arrived at the appointment, I was asked for my insurance cards and was informed that if additional testing was required, beyond the initial mammogram, it may not be covered. In the back of my head, I considered the idea of just stopping at the initial mammogram. The mammogram revealed that I had dense breasts, something now that Katie Couric is recently bringing to the forefront of breast cancer awareness. An ultrasound was recommended. Squashing the voice that said, “what if insurance doesn’t cover it?” I proceeded with the recommendations and got the ultrasound. The ultrasound showed no signs of cancer, and I was able to leave the appointment reassured that I was breast cancer free.
Since her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer, Couric became a huge advocate for colonoscopies – the first step in colon cancer screenings. With her recent breast cancer diagnosis, she put a new focus around breast cancer screenings. Here is a recap of what she has shared so far:
When should you get a mammogram?
There is confusion over when to get your first mammogram. Guidelines have changed throughout the years as research has increased. Mammograms are recommended at the age of 40 but getting an evaluation on the risk of breast cancer may be suggested even earlier.
One thing is for certain: oftentimes women that are diagnosed with breast cancer had no easily identifiable risk factors. This makes early screening that much more important!
What are dense breasts?
Breast density is the amount of fibrous and glandular tissue versus the amount of fatty tissue in the breasts. When a woman has dense breasts, it makes it difficult to determine what is tissue and what could be cancer. Mammograms that reveal dense breasts should be followed up with further screenings, like an ultrasound. But not everybody is aware of this, nor is every state required to inform the patient of this essential factor. Couric finds it beyond frustrating that the ABILITY to detect more cancers exists, but the AVAILABLITY of these tools does not.
Couric is now joining forces with representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. DeLauro is introducing a bill that would require insurance companies to cover ultrasounds for those with dense breasts. She is also pressing the FDA to make it mandatory for patients to be told when they have dense breast and that further screenings are recommended.
In her eyes, the additional screening is nonnegotiable. It is required to determine if breast cancer is present, so it should be covered.
Disparities within breast cancer health is prevalent.
Advanced treatments have increased survival rates for breast cancer. However, the death rate among Black women remains 40 percent higher compared to white women. This is in opposition of that fact that there is lower incidence of breast cancer among Black women. This evidence points to the fact that Black women are failed by the health care system once again. Access to care, especially quality care, is still not equal.
Couric’s family history of cancer led her to co-founding “Stand Up To Cancer” along with 8 other women also effected by cancer in some way. Their mission is to accelerate research that enables new therapies for cancer patients. In 2019, the Stand Up To Cancer Airbus A321 took flight. It features 22,627 names of cancer survivors, patients, and those who have passed away from cancer. My sister’s name is one of those names on the side of the plane. She is a cancer survivor all thanks to early detection. (My brother-in-law got to fly this plane as a pilot for American Airlines.)
In the next coming weeks, PBGH will release a new episode for our podcast, “It’s All Your Business,” featuring Lena Chaihorsky and Hannah Mamuszka of Alva10. They will discuss many areas around diagnostics and precision medicine, including breast cancer diagnoses.