Did your doctor say you have “dense breast tissue?” If you’re wondering what that means or are concerned about the implications, we’re here to help you out. Dense breast tissue is not an issue in and of itself, but special considerations need to be taken to manage your breast health, especially when you have a mammogram.
How Do I Tell If I Have Dense Breast Tissue (and What Exactly Is It)?
Despite what you might think, the density of your breasts has nothing to do with their shape or size. In fact, you cannot determine whether or not you have dense tissue without the aid of a mammogram. We recommend that you schedule yourself for regular mammograms as soon as you are eligible.
Once you get your mammogram, your radiologist will read the scan and inform you if your breast tissue is dense. To get a sense of what the radiologist is looking at, follow this general rule: the dark areas on a mammogram are fatty tissue; the white areas are dense tissue.
But what actually is that white tissue? Generally speaking, it is a combination of fibrous tissue and the structures that make milk during pregnancy and lactation. If the tissue you see on your mammogram is predominantly white, then you likely have dense breast tissue.
Why Does Breast Tissue Density Matter?
Dense breast tissue is fairly common, but it does require more proactive and intensive care than less dense tissue. Don’t let that intimidate you, though. With the right knowledge, you can approach your breast care with confidence. Here are some important things you should know about dense breast tissue:
Traditional (i.e. 2D) mammography is not as effective at detecting breast cancer for women with dense breast tissue. Breast cancers generally show up white on a scan, and they can easily be hidden by the dense tissue.
Dense tissue does carry a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Statistics show that women with extremely dense tissue are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those with fatty breasts.
What Should I Do If I Have Dense Breast Tissue?
The first thing you should do is keep getting your mammogram regularly. You should continue doing this, even if you don’t have dense breast tissue. Any other tests you have done should be in addition to (NOT in place of) your mammogram. That being said, you should be even more vigilant in your self breast exams if you have dense tissue. You should report lumps or other changes in your breasts to your doctor right away, even if you just had a traditional mammogram.
It is probably a good idea to consider other forms of screening if you have dense breasts. So what are some of these other possible tests? Three available options are:
Screening Breast Ultrasound—An ultrasound is focused sound waves. There is no radiation associated with ultrasound and the procedure only takes about 30 minutes. Ultrasound may detect benign masses in addition to breast cancer, so there is a higher risk of a false positive test.
Tomosynthesis—Tomosynthesis is a 3D mammogram and has about an 80% higher dose of radiation than a regular mammogram. It is, however, associated with a lower false positive result than an ultrasound or regular mammogram.
Breast MRI—A very accurate test for breast cancer, breast MRI is done by injecting contrast dye into your body and then doing an MRI of the breast. Breast MRI can be expensive and is a good option for people who need an accurate test, especially those with family history or test results showing atypical cells.
Taking care of your health is of the utmost importance—and breast health is no different. If you have dense breast tissue, there are resources available to help you know what’s happening in your body and make the best decisions possible.