Breast Density: What it Means for Your Breast Health

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By News Team on October 18, 2019

In the month of October, breast cancer awareness is front and center in the minds of many women. But the truth is, breast health should always be a priority.

A mammogram is the only screening test proven to reduce breast cancer deaths. But sometimes doctors need additional testing to determine if cancer is present.

This is especially true for women with dense breasts.

Breasts are composed of fibroglandular tissue and fatty tissue. Fibroglandular tissue looks white on a mammogram and fatty tissue looks dark. Breast density refers to the amount of fibroglandular tissue in the breast, as seen on a mammogram. Basically, a dense breast has more fibroglandular tissue than fat, at least greater than 50 percent. But why is this a problem?

Cancer looks white on a mammogram too, according to the team at Carilion Clinic’s Breast Care Centers. As a result, it can be obscured by the dense tissue around it and make detection difficult.

Digital mammography can improve cancer detection somewhat in dense breasts. Further imaging, such as breast ultrasound, may be helpful, especially in women who are at increased risk for breast cancer. New and upcoming technologies such as tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography are improving cancer detection in dense breasts whiel also decreasing recall rates.

“Younger women usually have dense breasts,” said one Carilion Clinic expert. “As we get older, our breasts usually become fattier, making cancer detection easier. A small percentage of women will remain dense, however, well into their 70s.

National statistics show that approximately 41 percent of women in the U.S. have dense breasts, a statistic that is mirrored by Carilion Clinic's patients: 40% of the women seen at the Roanoke Breast Care Center have dense breasts.

Breast density can be determined by radiologists who read mammograms. They report the breast density in the mammography report that goes to your doctor and can be seen in your MyChart patient portal. At that point, a conversation with your OB/GYN or primary care physician can be helpful to see if further screening may be helpful, based on your risk for breast cancer.

According to the American College of Radiology, women with dense breasts do have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This is because there is more of the normal fibroglandular tissue that cancer develops in. This makes screening that much more important for this group of women.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of talking with your doctor about getting a mammogram,” said Carilion's expert. “At the Breast Care Center, we recommend beginning annual mammograms at age 40. The earlier cancer is discovered, when it is smallest, the more treatable it is. There is a better chance for a positive outcome.”
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This article was reviewed by the team at Carilion Clinic's Breast Care Centers.