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Are You Dense? 4 Facts About Breast Density

By DuPage Medical Group Radiology

As a woman, it is important to take control of your health by knowing your body. Yup, all of your body; this includes your breasts and breast health. This starts with being familiar with the shape and feel of your breasts which can help you quickly detect any changes. Breast health should be a priority, no matter your age, and starts with self-breast exams and clinical breast exams at age 20 with the addition of mammograms at age 40.

So, why is breast density important and what does it mean?

If you’ve recently had a mammogram, it may have indicated that you have dense breast tissue. Breast density has to do with your breast tissue and how it shows up on a mammogram, and doesn’t relate to firmness or how heavy your breasts are. Your breasts are made up of a lot of different parts including lobules, ducts and fatty fibrous connective tissue. Your breasts will be denoted as “dense breasts” if you have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue compared to breasts that aren't. Many women have dense breasts, in fact, According to the Oxford Journal of Medicine; nearly 30-40% of all women in the U.S. have dense breasts. It is important to know if you have dense breast tissue as it is linked to an increased risk of getting breast cancer.

4 Facts About Dense Breasts
  1. Breast Density Can Only Be Determined Through Mammogram
    • Breast density can only be determined through a mammogram and is not based on how your breast feels (size/firmness) during your self-exam or your clinical breast exam performed by your physician. It is recommended by the American Cancer Society that women aged 40 and older get a yearly mammogram and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
  1. There Are 4 Categories of Breast Density
    • When a radiologist reviews your mammogram they determine the density of your breast tissue. Breast types go from almost entirely fatty tissue (least dense) to almost all glandular and fibrous with very little fatty tissue (most dense). The radiologist will determine which category you fall in depending on what they see on your scans. The Oxford Journal of Medicine also notes that of those with dense breasts, only 10% have what is known as level 4 density (most dense).
  1. Breast Density Affects Your Mammogram
    • Based on the density of your breast tissue, it may be harder for your radiologist to see cancer on a mammogram. As breast tissue becomes denser it appears white on a mammogram (compared to grey on a fatty breast), breast masses and tumors also look white so the density can make it more difficult to detect tumors by masking. Studies have shown that this is less of an issue with digital or 3D mammograms than film mammography.
  1. Dense Breasts = Increased Risk of Breast Cancer
    • Having dense breast tissue has been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer (compared to women with less dense breast tissue) so it is important to understand if you fall into this category. Research has shown that women with dense breast tissue are up to 6 times more likely to develop cancer. Only age and genetic mutation have a bigger influence on breast cancer risk.

Generally, breast density is not a major cancer risk factor for most women. And although this is linked, there are many factors that contribute to your risk including your age, the age that you started your menstrual period, age of menopause, a personal history of breast cancer or a family history of breast cancer.

What Does This Mean For Me?

What most people want to know is should I still have a mammogram or additional screening tests? Currently there isn’t one answer for everyone, as we are all different and there are many factors that contribute to your risk for breast cancer. The best plan is to start getting your mammogram at age 40 and talk to your doctor about your results and family history/risk factors. You will probably be instructed to continue your annual (or more often) mammogram but your primary care physician or radiologist may also suggest that you get an MRI or ultrasound to get a clearer picture of your breast health based on your density level.

Topics and Subtopics: Diagnostic Testing, Radiology & Women's Health

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