A Cleveland Clinic doctor broke it down.
Early detection and regular check-ups are essential when it comes to preventing cancer. It’s also important to educate yourself about risk factors and know what to look out for.
More than 2,300 women were surveyed and interviewed about their perception of dense breasts as a risk factor for breast cancer. They were asked whether having dense breasts puts you at greater risk than having a relative with breast cancer, and what can help lower a person’s risk of developing breast cancer.
The results show that women believe Family History is the biggest risk factor, and some believed that breast density increased the risk of developing breast cancer.
Because of this lack of awareness, the study authors “detailed Education Breast Cancer Risks and Prevention Strategies Needed.”
Why having dense breasts increases the risk of developing breast cancer
Breasts are composed of fibroglandular tissue (milk ducts, lobules, and connective tissue) and fat. Breast density is used to describe the amount of fibroglandular tissue in a patient’s breasts. Breasts are considered “dense” if there is more fibroglandular tissue than fat. Dr. Laura B. Shepherdson, MD, MS, and chief of breast imaging at the Cleveland Clinic explains.
About 50% of the population between the ages of 50 and 74 have dense breast tissue. Although it is clear that patients with dense breast tissue have a 1 to 4 times higher risk of developing breast cancer than patients with less fibroglandular tissue, it is unclear why this is the case, explains Dr. Shepherdson. One theory is that breast cancers develop in cells of fibroglandular tissue. Therefore, the more fibroglandular tissue a patient has, the more likely the cells are to become cancerous.
Another important reason breast density is important is that breast cancers may not show up properly on a mammogram if a woman has dense breast tissue, Dr. Shepherdson adds. Fibroglandular tissue appears white on a mammogram. Because cancers are also white, dense white tissue can “hide” breast cancer, making it more difficult for a radiologist—a doctor who interprets mammograms—to see it.
How to find out if you have dense breasts
Breast density is based on mammographic appearance, not on how the breasts feel. When a radiologist reads a mammogram, s/he assigns breast density.
Radiologists classify density using four categories based on the percentage of fibroglandular tissue (white on mammograms) compared to fat (gray on mammograms) in the breast, Dr. Shepherdson explains. Fortunately, many states have now passed laws requiring radiologists to inform patients if they have dense breast tissue.
Action steps for screening
Dr. Shepherdson says it’s never too early to start talking about breast health with your healthcare provider. S/he can review your specific risk factors for developing breast cancer and, with your input, develop a breast cancer screening strategy that works for you.
“I advise all patients to consider starting annual screening mammography starting at age 40 because younger patients have denser breast tissue and early detection is important,” says Dr. Shepherdson. “If a patient knows they have dense breasts, I also advise talking to their provider about what other screening tests might be right for them, including a full breast ultrasound and/or MRI.”