Dense Breasts and What this Means for Your Health

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Dense breasts can be a risk factor for breast cancer and may require imaging tests beyond a mammogram to better detect tumors. What women need to know.

Just released draft recommendations on breast cancer screening from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are putting the topic of dense breasts in the news. Laws in Pennsylvania and 21 other states now require women to be informed of their breast density.

In Pennsylvania, the breast density notification started in February 2014. Since that date, we have informed patients and their doctors of a woman’s breast density in the official mammogram report and in the letter sent to directly to the patient after a mammogram. But what does it all mean for your health?

What Does it Mean to Have Dense Breasts?

Breast density is determined by the kind of tissue in your breasts: fibrous, glandular, or fatty. If your breasts are categorized as dense, they have less fatty tissue and a greater amount of fibrous and glandular tissue as seen on a mammogram.

When you get a mammogram, the radiologist classifies your breast density somewhere between fatty and extremely dense. The American College of Radiology says 10 percent of American women have almost entirely fatty breasts; 10 percent have extremely dense breasts; and 80 percent are in one of two middle categories.

Breast density typically increases until you enter your 40s, when it may decrease. After menopause, generally there is more fatty replacement of breast tissue unless you’re on hormone replacement therapy.

It’s Important to Know How Dense Your Breasts are for 2 Reasons:

  • Having dense breasts increases your risk of breast cancer four- to six-fold compared to women with low breast density.
  • It’s more difficult for healthcare providers to distinguish between dense breast tissue and cancerous or noncancerous growths on mammograms.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you have dense breasts, talk to you doctor about whether additional screening tests may be appropriate for you. Although density increases breast cancer risk, there are no consistent recommendations for women with dense breasts to have additional routine screenings.

Continue to Get Your Mammograms--the only imaging test proven to reduce breast cancer deaths. Even if you have dense breasts, a mammogram can still reveal many cancers.

author name

Nitin K. Tanna, MD

Nitin K. Tanna, MD, is a radiologist at Lancaster Radiology Associates and serves as chief of mammography and breast imaging services at Lancaster General Health.
Education: A graduate of the University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. Tanna is a frequent community speaker on breast imaging and mammography, and has authored several articles on breast screening.

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