State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Medical groups oppose breast cancer bill

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 7, 2013 7:47 PM

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

October has been dubbed Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the state Legislature is really feeling the spirit. The water in the Capitol fountain sprays pink mist into the air in a sign of solidarity. Themed legislation has been teed up in both legislative chambers.

The marquee breast cancer awareness bill, this year, attempts to address breast density - the proportion of connective tissue to fat in the mammaries.

"Dense breast complicate early detection of breast cancer," wrote Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery) in a co-sponsorship memo. "There is no established protocol of informing women about breast density even if their density is high." His bill would require that women who undergo mammograms be notified by the radiology facility if they have dense breasts.

There's just one problem with Mensch's proposed remedy.

Doctors say it's totally unhelpful.

Most women have dense breasts - 50 to 70 percent, according to Dr. Sherry Blumenthal, chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

"We think it's important for us," Blumenthal said, referring to doctors, "but we do not think that this adds to the medical care of the patient because it is not helpful."

She imagines what they'll think when they receive a notice from radiology that they have dense breasts: "'What does this mean? Does this mean I have breast cancer?'" Blumenthal said, affecting a distressed voice. "So it creates a significant problem that can only be handled by her physician."

Her group, along with the Pennsylvania Medical Society, is asking lawmakers to amend the bill to require that any density notification comes with more information - that it's common, that it may confer higher risk of cancer, that patients may require further tests, and that patients should call their doctors if you have questions.

The Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition supports the bills (Mensch's proposal has an identical version in the House). The group frames the bill as a life-saver. "Dense breast tissue increases a woman's risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer at a later, more dangerous, less treatable stage," reads a press release from the PBCC.

Blumenthal is resigned to the reality that the bill will pass. "It's a crowd-pleaser," she said. But she added that it illustrates the tension between the medical profession, and the state lawmakers who try to regulate it over the heads of the state's Health Department.

"We don't overall feel that the legislature should be making medical decisions or interfering with our care of our patients," Blumenthal said.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society makes the same point in a blog post penned by Scot Chadwick, vice president of the group's government affairs division.

"Not only does it set a bad precedent," Chadwick writes, "but it puts the legislature in the position of having to amend the law every time a new and improved treatment protocol becomes available."


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