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Chicago area lawmaker aims to expand access to needed tests to detect breast cancer

Chicago area lawmaker aims to expand access to tests to detect breast cancer
Chicago area lawmaker aims to expand access to tests to detect breast cancer 03:55

CHICAGO (CBS) – It's a sobering statistic. Women have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lives, according to the American Cancer Society.

But for women with dense breasts, one way to try and catch cancer early isn't covered by Medicare or many insurance plans.

CBS 2's Dana Kozlov spoke with one Chicago congresswoman who is trying to change that, and she's backed by breast cancer patients who said it's a matter of life and death.

Leslie Yerger's stage four breast cancer diagnosis six years ago started a journey that brought her to found an organization, My Density Matters.

"We started My Density Matters so that my story didn't become anybody else's story," Yerger said.

The name refers to breast density and the need to make supplemental breast screenings like MRIs and ultrasounds standard operating procedure, free of charge, for women who have dense breast tissue like Yerger does.

"If we were to actually get that, it would begin to change the face of screening for women everywhere," she said.

Yerger's stage four diagnosis in 2017 came two months after a routine mammogram detected no signs of cancer.

Marie Gilbert, who received a stage zero breast cancer diagnosis in February, had a similar story.

"I had actually just had a clean mammogram six months prior," Gilbert said. "So if I had not asked for the supplemental screening and been aware of it and actually had been encouraging other women I know to get it, I would have never known."

Gilbert wasn't only aware of the additional screenings and her dense breasts. She was also fortunate. Her insurance covered the supplemental tests, but all too often, that's not the case.

"It can cost up to $800, and what do women say? 'Mmm, I'm OK. I think I won't do that,'" said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D).

But not getting the tests increases the risk of breast cancer going undetected. The lack of insurance coverage is one reason Schakowsky introduced the "Find It Early" bill in May, which would require all dense breast supplemental cancer screenings to be covered by insurance. For the congresswoman, it was a no-brainer piece of legislation once she found out how many women lacked the coverage.

"I was very angry because I knew that that means a lot of women would not get the care that they need," she said. "They would not find out if they had breast cancer, and that some women would die as a consequence."

Oncologists like North Shore Swedish Hospital's Dr. Jeffrey Cilley believes supplemental dense breast screenings should be routine.

"I think it's very important that we thoroughly evaluate all the tissue and if it's a dense breast that needs additional imaging, we should be able to do that right on the spot," Cilley said. 

Screening images show just how easy it is for cancer in dense breast tissue to go undetected in a regular mammogram. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated about 40% of all women have dense breasts, and that number is even higher among Black women.

While intentions are one thing, with such a divided Congress, does Schakowsky have the support needed to get it passed?

"There are more and more women in the Congress," she said. "This is a good thing, but all the fellas, most of them, have wives and daughters, and we want them to understand the risks."

So do the women at Yerger's fundraising event for My Density Matters. Several of them are battling breast cancer that was initially undetected.

"We'll get the word out that you need to ask for additional testing so you do not get diagnosed at stage four like I did at age 52," said one participant.

One common misconception is that dense breast tissue has to do with the size of the breasts or how they feel. The only way to know if you have dense breast tissue is by a mammogram.

For more information on additional testing, visit To learn more about the bill, or how to contact Schakowsky's office, visit

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