Just how dense are your breasts? Why keeping abreast of this indicator can help save your life

BreastDensityFlowerWhat kind of question is that?

In recent years it’s become the kind of question that can help health care providers identify breast cancer at earlier stages allowing them to treat women earlier with better results.

What are dense breasts?

The size of our breasts might be the only measurement we’ve thought about when it comes to “the girls,” so what on earth are dense breasts?  The density of breasts is a measurement of fatty tissue compared with fibroglandular tissue. The more fibrogladular tissue you have the more dense your breasts. On a mammogram, this dense tissue shows up as white areas. Levels 3 and 4 in the image below are what we describing as ‘dense breasts’ where more than 50% of the tissue is fibrogladular rather than fat.

Breast Density Categories from American College of  Radiology

Breast Density Categories from American College of Radiology


Why does knowing if you have dense breasts matter?

While having dense breasts is perfectly normal, increased density of fibroglandular tissue makes it difficult to interpret a mammogram. The dense tissue can mask a growth from view. As a result there is a slightly increased risk of not catching a tumor at an easily treatable stage. In younger women, who typically have denser breasts, an aggressive breast cancer may be hidden from detection by the dense fibrogladular tissue. There is also an increased risk of developing breast cancer in tissue that is dense. For women with extremely dense breasts there is a four to six times increase in the rate of breast cancer.


Eek! What if my breasts are dense? Am I going to get breast cancer and not know it because the mammogram was hard to interpret?

Knowing that you have dense breasts can help your care providers determine what is the best screening approach for you. Mammograms are still the primary way breast cancers are detected, but technology is changing rapidly. Digital mammograms have improved the ability to view breast tissue, and  3-D mammograms, also known as digital breast tomosynthesis, have further improved the ability of radiologists to assess dense breasts. There are additional methods that can be applied for women with dense breasts. Read the upcoming post for more information on tomosynthesis here in Tucson.

My breasts aren’t lumpy, I’m not worried.

Before you start trying to manually evaluate whether your breasts are dense (we still encourage monthly self-exams) or comparing them with friends and loved ones, the only way to assess the density of the breast is through mammography. Breast density refers to the appearance of the breasts on a mammogram rather than to breast size or firmness.  Your breasts may feel firm but not appear dense on a mammogram, or feel soft and appear extremely dense on the mammogram.

Once I have dense breasts will it always be that way? Does breast density change?

You may find that your breast density changes from one year’s mammogram to another for a variety of reasons – breast density is related to genetics, hormone levels and age  (all things you can’t control).

Oh no, not the ol’ mammogram!

If you’ve been putting off getting a mammogram, know you are not alone. More than half of Arizona’s women are not up to date on having a mammogram whether they have insurance or not. Perhaps it’s time to read this post about why there is nothing to fear from a mammogram. Whether you have insurance or not, it is time to schedule an appointment. Thanks to support from TMC Foundation, Susan G. Komen of Southern Arizona and an Avon grant many uninsured women can receive a free screening mammogram at TMC for Women.

photo 1 (7)

You’ve got mail!

Last year the Arizona State Legislature passed a law requiring that women whose breasts appear dense (More than 50% dense material – Levels 3 or 4 on the image above) on a mammogram be informed – typically this is done through the results letter sent to the patient – and to encourage them to talk with their health care provider to see whether additional screening is appropriate.

More information: Beyond the Basics – It’s Mammogram Time

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