If your doctor says you have dense breasts, it means unique challenges for important medical procedures.
Dense breast may be a term you’ve heard from your friends, doctor, or on the news. But what does this term mean, and how does it affect you? It’s an important topic that all women and men should understand. It affects testing, health, and cancer risk, so make sure you know what your doctor means if they say you have dense breasts.
What does a “dense” breast really mean?
Dense breasts are a perfectly normal thing. They are very common; in fact, the Mayo Clinic estimates that roughly half of all women undergoing mammograms have dense breasts. But what does it really mean?
Essentially, a dense breast will have less fatty tissue. Breasts are made up of milk glands, milk ducts, and supportive tissue, as well as fatty tissue. Everything but the fatty tissue is considered “dense”, so if a woman has a lower ratio of fatty tissue, her breasts could be called dense.
Breast density is not related to firmness or feel. There is no indication whatsoever that dense breasts feel different. Some assume that dense breasts are more firm, but there is no evidence to support this claim.
Breast density is broken down into four levels:
- Level 1 – (Non-dense): These breasts are almost entirely fatty tissue
- Level 2 – (Non-dense): Level two breasts have only scattered areas of density
- Level 3 – (Dense): There will be some areas of non-dense tissue, but the majority is dense
- Level 4 – (Dense): Considered extremely dense, this indicates that almost all of the tissue is milk glands, ducts, and supportive tissue
How breast density affects mammograms
So what’s the big deal with breast density? The problem comes from the fact that dense tissue appears white in an MRI scan. Cancer cells have the same appearance.
The dense tissue essentially acts as a curtain for cancer to hide behind, which makes spotting cancerous cells more difficult. Because reading a mammogram is more challenging, there is an increased risk of missing the cancer.
If you have dense breasts, what should you do
It might seem that because breast density makes reading mammograms difficult, the procedure would be unnecessary. This is not the case. The American Cancer Society still recommends annual mammograms for women from the ages of 45 to 54, regardless of breast density.
There are other tests that can be conducted, but they all come with certain risks. For example, a breast MRI can detect more additional cancer cells, but it requires the injection of contrast material. MRI’s are notorious for spotting false positives that require more imaging or a biopsy.
If you’re already in a high-risk group, you will want to talk with a doctor who understands your medical history. Most high-risk women will undergo an MRI alongside the annual mammogram.
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