If you’ve had a mammogram and your doctor told you your breasts are dense, you may be wondering what exactly that means and whether it changes your risk for breast cancer. Although dense breast tissue is common and might never cause you any issues, it’s important to understand and be prepared for additional screening, if necessary.
The term breast density refers to the amount of various types of tissue that make up your breasts. Basically, dense breasts contain more breast (glandular) and connective tissue than fatty tissue.
There are several reasons why dense breast tissue occurs, and you can’t prevent any of them! Breast density is usually related to both your age and genetic makeup. And, the density of your breasts may change over time, becoming less dense with age.
Some causes of dense breasts in women are:
There are four breast density categories ranging from very dense to mostly fatty tissue. The radiologist reading your mammogram test will figure out the best category for describing your breasts. The four different categories of breast density include:
Dense breasts increase your chances of breast cancer development. Women who have a high breast density have a greater risk (four to six times the risk) of developing breast cancer than those with more fatty breast tissue. Research also shows that females with dense breast tissue have a greater risk of developing bigger tumors. Although it’s not known the reason for this connection, it’s essential to keep in mind breast density in just one of the risk factors of developing breast cancer. If you have dense breasts, this does not mean you will definitely develop breast cancer in your lifetime.
A radiologist reads mammogram images to determine if tumors are present. If there are areas that they can't see clearly, more images may be needed. This is because fatty breast tissue will appear on a mammogram as opaque or grey, while fibrous or dense tissue looks white. Although this is an efficient way of determining breast density, tumors and other irregularities also appear white on mammograms, which is why it’s harder to detect abnormalities for women with dense breasts.
Doctors still consider mammograms the most efficient way of screening for breast cancer. However they may suggest a 3D mammogram which improves the radiologist’s ability to tell between breast tissue and any abnormalities.
Mammograms are a very important part of every woman’s regular healthcare program starting at age 40. If your doctor feels the images are inconclusive, especially if you have dense breasts, they may request additional images or other tests. This is so they can get a better look at anything that they’re unsure about on the image.
Common types of breast cancer imaging tests include:
Whether you have dense breasts or not, be sure you regularly receive mammograms according to your age. The American Cancer Society offers screening recommendations, but talk to your gynecologist or primary care physician about his or her recommended screening plan for you.