Mammogram Misses: 'If I had only known... I could have caught this a lot earlier'

EUGENE, Ore. -- Laura Caldwell did everything women are supposed to do for their health. The 46-year-old mother of three exercised, ate healthy and also got routine mammograms.

"Every year I would go faithfully," Laura said.

Caldwell had no family history of breast cancer and last August, Laura's mammogram came back clear.

But a few weeks later, she found a lump under her armpit - and it kept growing. Six weeks after that normal mammogram, the doctor dealt Laura and her husband Hugh devastating news.

"It ended up being that it was stage three invasive cancer, breast cancer," Laura recalled.

The news brought the Caldwell's busy lives to a standstill.

"Really scared because you never know what the outcome is going to be," said Hugh.

Laura and Hugh asked her doctor how they missed the tumor in her exam.

"He told me that I have what's considered 'dense breast tissue,'" said Laura. "No one ever told me I had dense breast tissue."

The Radiology Imaging Network estimates 40 percent of women who get mammograms have dense breast tissue. According to the American Cancer Society, women with dense breast tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer.

"Mammography in those women does have some difficulty in detecting certain types of breast cancer in its early stages," said Doctor Mike Milstein, who specializes in breast imaging at Oregon Medical Group's Cedar Clinic.

Milstein said dense breast tissue shows up white on a mammogram, the same color as a tumor, which means some masses can be masked.

Currently, only three states require doctors to tell women if they have dense breast tissue. Oregon is not one of them.

"And that's not okay in my mind," said Laura.

The Caldwells are pushing for Congress to pass a new bill that would require doctors to tell women their breast density.

"If I had known," said Laura. "If I had only known, then I could have caught this a lot earlier. I could have caught it when it was stage zero instead of stage three."

After several months of chemotherapy and a bi-lateral mastectomy in March, Laura is now in remission. She's seven days into 33 rounds of radiation and still goes back to Willamette Valley Cancer Institute for drug therapy. Laura said she's still pretty tired.

"But my spirits are good," said Laura. "I feel good."

"It's been hard," said Hugh. "It really is, but I'd do it a thousand times over for her. She's a pretty wonderful woman."

Though Hugh said he is upset about it, Laura insists she isn't angry that doctors didn't catch her cancer earlier.

"I feel that everything gets sifted through the hands of God," said Laura. "I don't think he allowed this in my life, but I think he knew it was going to happen, and for some reason he thought, this girl can handle this. So I'm not mad."

Coming up tomorrow on KVAL News: We'll hear what doctors think of the bill that would require them to tell women about their breast density and tell you what you can ask your doctor to help catch cancers like Laura's even earlier.