Regular mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early. But if your mammogram report says that you have dense breast tissue, you may be wondering what that means. Having dense breasts is very common and is not abnormal.
What is dense breast tissue?
Breasts are made up of lobules, ducts, and fatty and fibrous connective tissue.
- Lobules produce milk and are often called glandular tissue.
- Ducts are the tiny tubes that carry milk from the lobules to the nipple.
- Fibrous tissue and fat give breasts their size and shape and hold the other tissues in place.
Your breasts will be seen as dense if you have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue and not much fat in the breasts. Some women have denser breast tissue than others. For most women, breasts become less dense with age. But in some women, there’s little change.
How do I know if I have dense breasts?
- Breast density is seen only on mammograms. Some women think that because their breasts are firm, they are dense. But breast density isn’t based on how your breasts feel. It’s not related to breast size or firmness.
- Radiologists are the doctors who “read” x-rays like mammograms. They check your mammogram for abnormal areas, and also look at breast density.
Breast density categories
Radiologists use the Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System, or BI-RADS, to classify breast density into 4 categories. They go from almost all fatty tissue to extremely dense tissue with very little fat.
Breasts are almost all fatty tissue.
There are scattered areas of dense glandular and fibrous tissue.
More of the breast is made of dense glandular and fibrous tissue (described as “heterogeneously dense”). This can make it hard to see small tumours in or around the dense tissue.
Breasts are extremely dense, which makes it hard to see tumours in the tissue.
Some mammogram reports sent to women mention breast density. Your health care provider can also tell you if your mammogram shows that you have dense breasts.
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).
The language used is mandated by each law, and may say something like this:
“Your mammogram shows that your breast tissue is dense. Dense breast tissue is common and is not abnormal. However, dense breast tissue can make it harder to evaluate the results of your mammogram and may also be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. This information about the results of your mammogram is given to you so you will be informed when you talk with your doctor. Together, you can decide which screening options are right for you. A report of your results was sent to your primary physician.”
Why is breast density important?
Women who have dense breast tissue seem to have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer compared to women with less dense breast tissue.
We do know that dense breast tissue makes it harder for radiologists to see cancer. On mammograms, dense breast tissue looks white. Breast masses or tumours also look white, so the dense tissue can hide some tumours. In contrast, fatty tissue looks almost black. On a black background it’s easier to see a tumour that looks white. So, mammograms can be less accurate in women with dense breasts.
Should I have any other screening tests if I have dense breast tissue?
Studies have shown that breast ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help find some breast cancers that can’t be seen on mammograms. But MRI and ultrasound both show more findings that turn out not to be cancer. This can lead to more tests and unnecessary biopsies. And the cost of ultrasound and MRI may not be covered by insurance.
Talk to your health care provider about whether you should have other tests.
What should I do if I have dense breast tissue?
If your mammogram report says that you have dense breast tissue, talk with your provider about what this means for you. Be sure that your doctor or nurse knows your medical history and if there’s anything else in your history that increases your risk for breast cancer.
Any woman who’s already in a high-risk group (based on gene mutations, a strong family history of breast cancer, or other factors) should have an MRI along with her yearly mammogram.