Lawmakers, breast cancer survivors seek to expand additional screenings

An estimated 5,500 Wisconsin women will get breast cancer in 2023, according to the American Cancer Society. Annual mammograms save lives, no question. But, they can miss cancer in several women. Some breast cancer survivors hope a new bill will change that.  

Linda Hansen in Franklin didn’t think she’d live to meet a grandchild. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer 13 years ago.

"I was told I had 18 to 25 months to live," said Hansen.

Linda Hansen

Hansen still has chemotherapy every three weeks. When Contact 6 visited Hansen at home, she was spending precious time with her 9-month-old granddaughter, Chloe.

"[My cancer] is terminal. It’s going to kill me. The doctors have been real clear," said Hansen.

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Annual mammograms are key for early detection of breast cancer. Yet, just weeks before Hansen’s diagnosis with stage four, her mammogram came back clear. How can that happen?

"Dense breast tissue looks white on a mammogram. And, breast cancer looks white on a mammogram," explained Hansen. "It just all blends together."

The National Cancer Institute said 40% of women have dense breast tissue. Dense tissue is a risk factor for breast cancer. It can also make the cancer harder to spot on a mammogram. 

A Wisconsin law enacted in 2018 says facilities that perform mammograms must notify patients if they have dense breast tissue.

Hansen wants to go one step further. She supports a bipartisan bill before the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Health. The bill would require health insurance policies to cover supplemental breast screening examinations, like a breast ultrasound or MRI, for people with dense breast tissue.

"This bill would have saved my life," said Hansen.

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The Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition supports the bill. So do several medical associations.

"We’re trying to make it financially attainable for individuals, because you’re looking at a $200 to a $1,000 copay," said Lindsey O’Connor, president of the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition. "If [someone] does have cancer, it will be caught earlier. Treatment will be less expensive."

Lindsey O’Connor

Those who submitted testimony against the bill include the Alliance of Health Insurers. In its letter to the committee, it referenced guidelines by the United States Preventative Service Task Force which said "current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of supplemental screening for breast cancer … in women identified to have dense breasts on an otherwise negative screening mammogram."

The Wisconsin Association of Health Plans also opposes the bill and wrote "When cost sharing limitations are put into statute ... cost are simply borne elsewhere -- in either rising premiums, or via copays..."

As it stands, insurance policies must cover two mammograms for women ages 45 to 49 and one annual mammogram for those over age 50.

Hansen says she wasted years relying on mammograms, unaware that she had dense breast tissue that could affect the results.

"I would have said, ‘I want additional testing,’" said Hansen.

Hansen says she’s using the time she has to advocate for change.

"I’m 100% certain this is going to save lives and I can’t think of anything better to do with my time," said Hansen.

In a letter to the committee, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) writes, "DHS recommends that all individuals have access to the coverage of breast cancer screenings as medical appropriate." DHS also writes that national guidelines don’t currently support using advanced imaging for breast cancer screenings in people with average risk. It says there is scientific literature that supports for individuals with dense breast tissue.

Advocates for the bill say it may not have enough votes to pass out of committee.