So you’ve been told you have dense breast tissue – now what?
It’s no secret that breast cancer is a widespread medical issue, and one that is often best fought through regular mammograms and early detection.
But for some women, another breast-related issue can make it hard to do that – dense breast tissue.
“When patients don’t know what that is, it can cause a lot of stress,” says Dr. Gale England, a breast surgeon at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. “Just like any medical diagnosis, it is important for patients and their family and caregivers to understand what having dense breasts means for them now and in the future.”
- Don’t panic! (And what is it?) Dense breasts are relatively common – some studies estimate as many as four out of every 10 women have dense breast tissue. Breasts are made up of a varying mix of glandular tissue, ducts, fibrous tissue and fat. Those who have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue in their breasts are said to have “dense” breasts. A dense breast diagnosis does carry a certain risk because dense breasts can impede the identification of some tumors and may increase a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer. Still, having dense breasts does not mean you have a tumor and will get breast cancer. For the majority of women, it primarily means patients and care teams will need to take some additional care and consideration in future screenings.
- Ask what category of density your breast is. Breasts are measured in four categories of denseness, one being compromised almost entirely of fatty tissue and four being extremely dense. In some states, women whose mammograms show heterogeneously dense or extremely dense breasts must be told that they have dense breasts in the summary of the mammogram report that is sent to patients (sometimes called the lay summary).
- Learn your future screening options. First, the American Cancer Society recommends most women with dense breasts receive regular mammograms as directed by their doctors. Most breast cancers can still be seen on a mammogram – even in women with dense breasts. While there is no official consensus on any additional screenings or tests, there are additional technologies such as breast ultrasounds (ABUS) and MRIs that can help find some breast cancers that can’t be seen on mammograms. Your health care provider will be able to help guide you in deciding if additional screenings are for you. “The only test proven to reduce breast cancer deaths is a mammogram,” says Dr. England. “But some of these technologies can provide doctors with the extra details and different perspectives to catch tumors early.”
- Know what other risks you may have. The medical community has identified a range of risk factors associated with breast cancer risk, including dense breasts. “Having a risk factor doesn’t mean you will get the disease,” says Dr. England. “But knowing your risk factors gives you knowledge which you can use to talk to your doctor about ways to lower your risk and about if early or more specialized screenings are right for you.”
About the Author
Nathan Lurz, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. He has nearly a decade of professional news experience as a reporter and editor, and a lifetime of experience as an enthusiastic learner. On the side, he enjoys writing even more, tabletop games, reading, running and explaining that his dog is actually the cutest dog, not yours, sorry.