North Carolina became the twelfth state to pass legislation requiring healthcare providers to notify women of their breast density– the ratio of tissue to fat–which is a risk fact for breast cancer this past summer, thanks in part to the efforts of our Melissa Harris-Perry Foot Soldier this week: Addy Jeffery.
Jeffery, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, staged a successful campaign with the Greensboro, NC Commission on the Status of Women to get her state legislator to pass the Breast Density Notification and Awareness bill. Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law on July 23.
Prior to Saturday’s show, I had a chance to speak to Addy about her efforts.
msnbc: Can you tell me about when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
It was around Christmas of 2010. I felt a little lump in my right breast. It was probably about less than the size of a dime–something small. Basically I wasn’t too worried about it. It had been just about eight months since my mammogram and I don’t have a family history, so I wasn’t really too worried about it. I went in to a local radiology group here in town and they did a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound within about three days of me going to my ob-gyn and so they completed the tests and they asked me to return in six months. They said they saw an area of concern but they said “go ahead and just come back in six months and we’ll keep an eye on it.” I said, “Can we do the biopsy now, because frankly I didn’t want to go crazy worrying about this for six months.”
They scheduled the biopsy the next day, [which] just happened to be my 48th birthday. The minute I saw the doctor’s face when she finally came to get me in the waiting room I thought “oh my god, something’s wrong.” She explained that I had invasive breast cancer and that was a major shock to me obviously. She spoke quite a bit about follow-up testing. I was crying. I was very upset. A few days later was finally a meeting with my oncologist and he showed me on a screen the results of the MRI and said that my only option was to have a mastectomy. I was really surprised. Isn’t there another option? He said the size of the area of the breast cancer was 10.7 centimeters—10.7 centimeters is about four inches, which is almost the length of an iPhone, that they couldn’t see on a mammogram a week before. That came as a shock to me. I asked him: how long do you think this has been there? And he said you’ve probably had breast cancer for at least three years. I said you’ve got to be wrong because I’ve had my regular mammograms, and that’s when he said, “well you have dense breast tissue and they couldn’t see it on the mammogram.”
What did you decide to do after receiving news of your diagnosis?
That day I was really in shock because not only was I going through the diagnosis of breast cancer, but to come to the realization that I did the right things and that it was not seen by a test that I depended on was just another level of shock. I went to speak with the radiologist and they were very nice to me. They told me the limitations of mammography is something they struggle with every day, and of course this is not something that was ever explained to me before. I learned a major lesson once I was diagnosed, but it was not anything that ever came to my awareness beforehand. Right about in the middle of my chemo was when I started to work on this issue to try to change the way things were done in North Carolina because I thought there was something I could do. I wasn’t sure what my outcome was going to be, but I thought if there’s something I could do to make a difference once I leave this world, it was going to be that I was going to change to make it better for other women.
What was the process of changing the way mammogram results are reported in your state?
[With the Greensboro Commission on the Status of Women], we spoke to a lot of women’s groups throughout the city for about a year and then finally it was in February of 2013 [when] we took it before city council and city council here voted unanimously to put this issue on the state legislative agenda that goes to the state capitol…So we helped draft the bill and I went to Raleigh on many occasions to testify before the Senate Health Committee and speak to a number of legislators. And I’ll say that this was a bipartisan effort, which was kind of unique given a lot of what’s happened in North Carolina in the past year – breast cancer I guess affects Republicans and Democrats. The support was fantastic. Then the governor finally – it got to his desk, and he invited several of us, including myself, another breast cancer survivor that spoke out about this here in Greensboro, plus a couple of the city council members, and the chair of the commission. He invited all of us to his office to witness the signing of the law on July 23rd. He handed me the first pen, which was very emotional for me because that was just a very good moment – something that came out of a major tragedy in my life, and to have it culminate with changing the law for all 100 counties in North Carolina was just huge.
When you teamed up with the Commission on the Status of Women, was drafting the law always the goal?
Yes, when we started this process, we kicked it off formally in September of 2011, and that was about two weeks after I had my mastectomy. We started off first by building support in the community by speaking to a lot of women’s groups with the ultimate goal of passing a state law. When we started working on this only one state had a law where this needed to be told to women. Now Connecticut was the first, but Texas, Virginia, New York, California, Alabama, Maryland, Tennessee, Nevada, Oregon, Hawaii, and we were number 12. I want to make very clear is that this is not about not getting mammograms. The only way to know about your breast density is through a mammogram and there’s four levels of breast density. The higher the breast density, it could cause it to be more difficult to see abnormalities on a mammogram. I think that women need to be given the full explanation and then make their own decisions.
You can see host Melissa Harris-Perry’s ‘Foot Soldier’ segment from Saturday’s show above.