Should you worry about dense breast tissue?

Breasts come in different shapes, sizes and densities.

In some cases, dense breast tissue can be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

Studies have shown that four in 10 cases of breast cancer in younger women could be attributed to high breast density. This means breast density could be more important than a person’s family history when determining breast cancer risk factors. But having dense breasts is not an abnormal condition. In the United States, 43% of women over age 40 have dense breast tissue.

What causes dense breast tissue?

It’s a physical attribute of the body, and there’s little a woman can do to actively change or improve the density of her breast.

Are annual breast screenings important?

X-ray image of dense breast tissue

Allison Gleason, an OSF HealthCare supervisor of mammography and ultrasound, said it’s important to remember that the density of a woman’s breasts can change over time.

“That’s why it’s essential to get annual mammogram screenings and stay up to date on the condition of your breasts,” Allison said. “Remember to continue getting routine screening mammograms even when additional exams are suggested for you.”

Are dense breasts firmer?

Breast tissue consists of fatty cells, fibrous connective tissue and milk glands. Dense breast tissue means you have a higher percentage of fibrous and glandular tissue within your breasts. Your breasts are classified as “dense” tissue if they contain more than half of fibroglandular tissue rather than fatty breast tissue.

Can dense breast tissue turn into cancer?

No. Dense breast tissue is not a cause of developing breast cancer.

Dense breast tissue may obscure or hide breast cancers on a mammogram – potentially delaying diagnosis in these women. This is due to the fact that dense tissue absorbs more radiation during mammography, reducing the accuracy of the test and making it more difficult to diagnose breast cancer properly.

Both dense breast tissue and cancer appear white on a mammogram. This creates a dangerous camouflage effect and a challenge for radiologists who aim to find breast cancer as early as possible.

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved diagnostic mammogram will identify 88% of cancers in a breast that is almost entirely fatty tissue or low in density. That’s compared to 62% in high-density breasts.

How will you know if you have dense breasts?

“It’s the law in Illinois and Michigan to notify mammography patients if they have dense breast tissue,” Allison said. Being notified that you have dense breast tissue is a common and normal finding.”

What types of imaging are best for dense breasts?

Once a woman is identified as having dense breasts, the best imaging technique for an annual screening mammogram is a 3D mammogram, also known as tomosynthesis.

Is it time for your annual mammogram?

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3D mammography increases the chance of detecting abnormal cells in overlapping parts of the breasts. The low-dose 3D mammogram exam takes just 3.7 seconds per view resulting in greater patient comfort, a lower amount of radiation and a reduced chance of patient motion.

Once having a dense breast tissue mammogram, the radiologist may recommend either a breast ultrasound or ABUS (Automated Breast Ultrasound). “ABUS uses sound waves to reduce false positive results and help us meet the health needs of women better,” Allison said.

The advantages of ABUS include:

  • Detecting breast cancer in women with extremely dense breast tissue
  • Demonstrating a 36% improvement in detecting breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue that has not had a prior issue
  • Allowing radiologists to look through hundreds of image slices to determine and locate breast cancer that a regular mammogram may not have detected

“If you have been identified as having a dense breast tissue cancer risk, you should understand your options. Make sure that the best possible imaging studies are performed for confidence in your imaging results.” Allison said.

What should you do if you have dense breast tissue?

If you have dense breast tissue, talk with your doctor about your breast tissue density and family history of breast cancer to determine the best imaging options. You should also check with your insurance provider for 3D (tomosynthesis) and ABUS coverage.

Last Updated: February 17, 2023

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About Author: David Pruitt

David Pruitt is a writer for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare. He has a bachelor’s of journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a reporter before joining OSF HealthCare in 2014.

An avid golfer and fisherman, David was born and raised Alton, Illinois, which is where he currently resides with his son, James.

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Categories: Cancer, Preventive Health, Women's Health