Breast Density: What it Means for Your Breast Health

News Team's picture
By News Team on October 10, 2016

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 in 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?

“On a mammogram, cancer looks white, too,” said Eileen Kenny, M.D., breast imager and medical director of Carilion Clinic’s Breast Care Centers.  “It can hide in this dense tissue 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 technology such as tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography, will improve cancer detection in dense breasts and also decrease recall rates. This will soon be available at all Carilion Breast Care facilities.

“Younger women usually have dense breasts,” Dr. Kenny said. “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. In Roanoke, 40 percent of the women we see at our breast center have dense breasts, also.”

Breast density can be determined by radiologists who read mammograms. They report the breast density in the mammography report that goes to your doctor.

Currently, under Virginia law, any patient who undergoes a screening mammogram that reveals dense breasts must also be informed through a letter from the mammography facility.

“This information is given to patients to raise their awareness. They need to talk to their doctor to see if further screening may be helpful, based on their risk for breast cancer,” Dr. Kenny said.

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,” Dr. Kenny said. “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.”

To schedule your mammogram today, and find a Carilion Clinic Breast Care Center near you, please call 800-422-8482.