Does dense breast tissue affect your cancer risk?

Does dense breast tissue affect your cancer risk?

The American Cancer Society recommends women between the ages of 45 and 54 receive regular annual mammograms, although women can start screening at age 40. California law requires that your healthcare provider inform you if the results of those mammograms show that you have dense breast tissue.

What are “dense breasts”?

Breasts are made up of a combination of fatty and non-fatty tissues. The non-fatty tissue consists of fibrous and glandular tissue. If you have dense breasts, you have less of the fatty tissue and more of the glandular tissue.

Dense breasts are often inherited, so if your mother has dense breasts, chances are you do, too.

How can I tell if my breasts are dense?

Let’s start with how you can’t tell – you cannot determine breast density just by feeling your breasts (even your doctor can’t make the determination during a physical exam). You need a mammography to identify and measure breast density.

The link between dense breasts and breast cancer

Why is breast-cancer risk higher for those with dense breasts?

  • Easy to miss: It is trickier to spot a tumor in dense breast tissue, so a radiologist may miss a potential tumor during a mammography.
  • Higher risk: Women with denser breast tissue have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Lawrence Bassett, MD, a professor of radiology and section chief at the Iris Cantor Center for Breast Imaging, says this makes sense because breast tumors do not develop from fat – they develop from the glandular tissue. And women with dense breasts have more glandular tissue.

Breast cancer screening that’s right for you

Medicine is moving toward personalization – making sure the diagnosis and treatment fit your particular needs. Screening is becoming more personalized as well. Deanna J. Attai, MD, assistant clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and president of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, says that we shouldn’t have the same breast cancer screening for all women because each woman’s breast cancer risk is different.

Simply having dense breasts may not require you to have extra screenings. However, if you do have dense breasts, it is important to discuss your breast cancer risk with your doctor. He or she will consider your breast density along with other factors, such as your age, weight, overall health and family history to personalize a breast cancer screening plan for you.

Beyond mammography: Breast cancer screening options

Based on your personal risk assessment, your doctor may recommend one or more of these breast cancer screening tests:

  • For women with dense breasts, tomosynthesis, a 3-D mammography, provides a more detailed and intricate view of the breasts.
  • For women with very dense breasts, you may need an ultrasound in addition to mammography.
  • For women with breast cancer risk that is 20 percent or higher than average, your doctor may recommend a breast MRI.

The right screening process can help doctors identify breast cancer early, so you can start treatment when it will be most successful.

What is your breast cancer risk? Take our breast cancer risk assessment and discuss the results with your doctor. For more information about our comprehensive approach to breast cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment, visit the UCLA Breast Center.

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