The issue of breast density seems to be coming up regularly these days, so I thought it would be helpful to have a primer of sorts that explains why we’re hearing so much about this topic lately. This explanation is based on some very basic questions and answers – suitable for sharing with all women.
Why the big fuss about breast density?
Breast density is one of the strongest predictors of the failure of mammography screening to detect cancer. There are indicators that women with dense breasts are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Depending on the information source, a woman can be three times to six times more likely to develop cancer if she has dense breasts.
In addition, it is also more difficult to detect cancer in dense breast tissue, particularly with mammography. This is one reason why it is becoming more important for a woman to know whether or not she has dense breasts.
What is dense breast tissue?
Dense breast tissue is comprised of less fat and more connective tissue, which appears white on a mammogram. Cancer also appears white on a mammogram thus tumors are often hidden behind the dense tissue. As a woman ages, her breasts usually become more fatty.
There are several factors that can be used to determine breast density. A radiologist determines the density of a woman’s breasts by examining a mammogram. It’s important to know that breast density cannot be determined by self-exam or by your doctor’s physical exam.
Who has dense breasts?
Measuring breast density is being done more frequently, and it has been found that a significant amount of the population has dense breasts. It is more common for dense breast tissue to be found in younger women. Although breast density can fluctuate and tends to decrease over time, it is not uncommon for women to have dense breasts in their 40s and even into their 80s. Two thirds of pre-menopausal women and 25% of post-menopausal women have dense breast tissue.
How are concerns being addressed?
Because there is a correlation between dense breast tissue and higher cancer risk, radiologists and physicians are more aware of the importance of measuring breast density. Steps are being taken to come up with more standardized ways of measuring breast density.
Notification of breast density is also being widely discussed. Notification, in addition to education, could help women make more informed decisions about screenings and breast care, yet there are pros and cons for giving women this information. Nonetheless, some states already have laws requiring notification, and there is pending legislation surrounding this issue.
What can you do?
Every woman should be aware of the breast density factor related to cancer risk. The addition of a single screening ultrasound to a mammographic screening increases detection of breast cancers that are small and node-negative. Talk to your doctor about this. There are hundreds of articles on the subject of breast density, but the few linked here will give you information that will help you know what kind of questions to ask.
If you are a medical professional, particularly in the breast health sector, be prepared to answer basic questions like the ones highlighted here. Post a comment below and let us know of other frequently asked questions that you get.
We will also continue to include articles on this subject in our monthly newsletter, QSUM Quips.
Photo Credit: Valery Chernodedov