Dense Breasts: What This Means
March 25, 2021
When you have a mammogram, there is a chance the results will come back with a note about your breast tissue. For some women, the results indicate “dense breast tissue,” and a recommendation to have mammograms more often.
But what is dense breast tissue? And why do you need more mammograms? Should you be concerned?
The 1-2-3 of Dense Breast Tissue
If you are just embarking on the mammogram journey, we recommend reading our post, What is a Mammogram, to learn more about the process and what to expect.
1. What is dense breast tissue?
The mammogram gives us a good image of your breast tissue, and that tissue is divided into three different types:
- Fatty tissue. Ultimately, fatty tissue is what determines whether your breasts are large or small, as well as their shape. Women with smaller breasts have less fatty tissue; women with larger breasts have more.
- Glandular tissue. Your breasts are designed to nourish infants, whether or not you choose to do so. As a result, they are full of glandular tissue. The lobes make the milk and the ducts carry the milk to the nipple and into the baby’s mouth when you breastfeed.
- Fibrous tissue. The fibrous tissue connects and holds the fatty, glandular and skin surrounding the breast in place.
Since mammograms were specifically designed as an early breast cancer detection tool, we’ll turn to cancer.org as our primary resource for dense breast tissue and what it means.
According to their website:
Your breast tissue may be called dense if you have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue and not much fat in the breasts. Having dense breast tissue is common. Some women have more dense breast tissue than others. For most women, breasts become less dense with age. But in some women, there’s little change.
Your mammograms determine which type of breast tissue you have, and this can change over the years. The types of breast tissue recorded by your physician are:
- Almost entirely fatty (10%)
- Extremely dense (10%)
- A few areas of dense tissue (40%)
- Extremely dense tissue (40%)
Dense Breast Tissue Deserves More Frequent Mammograms
Statistics tell us that women with dense breast tissue are more likely to have breast cancer and that breast cancer can be harder to detect in all that dense, fibrous tissue. These results help to set physicians’ recommendations for how often patients have mammograms.
If you have dense breast tissue, you’re likely to receive your mammogram results with a letter or text that says something like:
“Your mammogram shows that your breast tissue is dense. Dense breast tissue is common and is not abnormal. However, dense breast tissue can make it harder to evaluate the results of your mammogram and may also be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. This information about the results of your mammogram is given to you so you will be informed when you talk with your doctor. Together, you can decide which screening options are right for you. A report of your results was sent to your primary physician.”
From the radiologist’s perspective, cancerous tissue or lumps appear white, and so does the breasts’ fibrous tissue. The more dense your breast tissue is, the harder it is to differentiate between the two, and we feel safer keeping a closer eye on you.
Be Aware More than Concerned
Again, about 40% of women are in the same, dense fibrous tissue boat as you. If you are one of those 40%, we encourage you to visit DenseBreast-info.org. It is an excellent resource, particularly for those with extremely dense breasts. There is no need for concern, stress, or fear, and a healthy dose of awareness is always a good thing.
It is true that women with dense breast tissue are more likely to develop breast cancer, but that increased risk is quite small (1.2 times). Use your growing awareness to stay in tune with your body:
Honor your physician’s mammogram recommendations
First and foremost, honor the recommendations to have more regular mammograms. Your images are saved and compared to one another. This is one of the best resources we have for determining the difference between healthy fibrous tissue and potential cancer.
Become a self-breast exam pro
We perform breast exams as part of your annual women’s wellness exams. In reality, patients should be performing their own self-breast exams on a regular basis for the 11 months or so between appointments.
Our recommendation is that women perform breast exams on themselves one week after their period begins (every cycle, rather than every month), and then once a month after menopause. Read, Breast Self Exam, to learn more about the how-tos.
Make healthy lifestyle choices
Finally, it does without saying that women who make healthy lifestyle choices have a lower chance of developing cancer, have a higher chance of catching it sooner, and a better chance of beating cancer with swift treatment if they do get a positive cancer result.
Are you overdue for a mammogram? Has a dense breast tissue result inspired you to take better care of your body and learn more about self-breast exams? Schedule an appointment with Women’s Health Associates where we support women in taking a proactive and collaborative approach to health and wellbeing.