Early cancer detection: N.S. Liberal wants more testing for women with dense breasts

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia Liberal wants more cancer testing for women with dense breasts'
Nova Scotia Liberal wants more cancer testing for women with dense breasts
WATCH: Nova Scotia Liberal MLA Rafah DiCostanzo was diagnosed with breast cancer last year after finding a lump that went undetected on a mammogram. Now she’s calling on the government to enhance breast screening in the province. Amber Fryday reports. – Mar 6, 2024

A Liberal member of the Nova Scotia legislature is making a determined plea to the provincial government to provide supplementary breast cancer screening for women with dense breasts.

Rafah DiCostanzo introduced an opposition bill called the Find It Early Act on Wednesday, which would have the government pay for more detailed cancer screenings of women with dense breasts, which put them at a higher risk of the disease.

DiCostanzo was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2023 after finding a lump that was not detected on an earlier mammogram.

“My life has changed, I can’t explain to you how much it has changed since,” the 61-year-old told reporters at the legislature.

“Mastectomy, lumpectomy are difficult surgeries, and looking at yourself in the mirror in the morning is difficult … and it’s much easier for me than a 30-year-old or a 40-year-old.”

Story continues below advertisement

The opposition member said dense breast tissue makes it harder for mammograms to detect tumours. Supplementary screening using more advanced technologies can save lives and help people avoid traumatic surgeries and difficult chemotherapy treatment, she said.

She added that Nova Scotia is the only province that currently denies women supplementary ultrasound or MRI detection.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

“What I’m hoping this bill will bring is awareness among women of the elevated risk of having dense breasts so they can demand more screening,” DiCostanzo said. “This bill is not political, it is personal.”

The legislation would establish a supplementary screening program no later than Sept. 1 of this year. Breast density is categorized from A through D with women who fall into categories C and D considered to have dense breasts and the bill specifies the screening program is for them.

Breast cancer survivor Cheryl Coffin, who was diagnosed in February 2022 at the age of 56, appeared with the Liberal member in support of the bill.

Coffin said she had a routine mammogram in February 2020 that cleared her of signs of breast cancer. She said she was informed that she had an “elevated risk” because of dense breast tissue, but she was unable to obtain additional testing because it’s not offered. Coffin believes her cancer could have been detected earlier when it was less severe.

“This has been a very difficult process to go through, with huge implications to me and my family,” she said. “That makes me angry.”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Breast Cancer Awareness Week/Dense Breasts'
Health Matters: Breast Cancer Awareness Week/Dense Breasts

Health Minister Michelle Thompson said that while she couldn’t make an immediate commitment to DiCostanzo’s proposed legislation, she remains open to changes in cancer detection.

“We will continue to look at the evidence and the clinical pathways to see what will evolve,” said Thompson. “I am going to find out about where the gap is between the clinical evidence and the advocacy groups and see what is possible.”

Paola Marcato, a professor and breast cancer researcher at Dalhousie University, said more than 43 per cent of women fall into categories C and D. Marcato said mammograms miss about 40 per cent of cancers in the densest breasts.

She said supplementary screening can improve a patient’s quality of life and also reduce the costs of therapies that would be required when advanced cancer is detected.

Story continues below advertisement

“We know we can save lives if we do this (supplementary screening),” Marcato said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2024.

Sponsored content