Almost half of women have dense breast tissue. If you’re one of them, here’s what to know.
You probably already know that regular mammogram screenings are important in the early detection of breast cancer. Screenings can find cancer when it’s too small to be felt as a lump. And finding cancer when it’s small and hasn’t spread means easier treatment with greater success.
So, you’ve had a mammogram, and the results say you have dense breast tissue (sometimes shortened to dense breasts). What does that mean?
What is dense breast tissue?
Your breasts are made up of two different types of breast tissue:
- Dense breast tissue, which is made up of:
- Milk glands/ducts
- Supportive fibrous tissue to hold your breasts in place
- Fatty breast tissue
Having dense breast tissue means more than half your breast tissue is made up of tissue other than fat.
Who’s more likely to have dense breasts?
You’re more likely to have dense breast tissue if you:
- Have a genetic tendency
- Are younger
- Have a lower body weight
- Take hormone replacement therapy
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
The density of your breasts can change over time. So even if you have dense breast tissue now, you may not in the future.
How to manage
“Having dense breast tissue means you may have a higher risk of developing breast cancer,” says Monica Froicu, MD, a Geisinger diagnostic radiologist. So it’s even more important to get regular mammograms — though other tests may be needed as well, she cautions.
“Breast cancer can go undetected by a 2D mammogram, since dense breast tissue can mask the cancer,” Dr. Froicu says. Having additional imaging lets your doctor take a closer look. Other images they may order include:
- 3D mammogram – This study uses X-rays to collect multiple images of the breast from different angles. A computer combines them to form a 3D image of your breast.
- Breast MRI – This test uses magnets to create images of your breasts.
- Breast ultrasound – An ultrasound uses sound waves to take pictures of your breasts.
Often, the follow-up imaging after the regular screening mammogram will show nothing of concern. But it’s important to have these tests done in case there is cancer present. Finding cancer early on means it will be easier to treat.
Dense breasts: Knowledge is power
Dense breast tissue is only one risk for breast cancer. Other factors can also increase your risk, including:
- Lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol, being overweight or not getting enough physical activity
- Not having children or not breastfeeding
- Using hormone replacement therapy to relieve menopause symptoms
- Inherited gene mutations, such as in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
- A family history of breast cancer
If you have dense breast tissue, start by talking to your healthcare provider. You can work together to achieve your best breast health.