What Does Dense Breast Tissue Mean?

dense breasts

You just received your mammogram results, and they are clear – great news! But in your results, it says you have “dense breast tissue.” What does this mean?

Here’s what Dr. Kelly Rosso, MD, from Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Breast Surgical Oncology department, says about this often misunderstood result.

“Your breasts are made up of different tissues, including glands and ducts that function to produce milk and deliver it to the nipple, and structural tissue such as fat, connective tissue and blood vessels that support the glands and ducts.” According to Dr. Rosso, density is related to the amount of functional glandular tissue versus the amount of fatty tissue that makes up the breast.

Dense tissue and breast cancer risk

If you have dense breast tissue, should you have extra concern about getting breast cancer? “While having dense breasts is a risk factor for breast cancer, it’s difficult to estimate your risk based on density alone,” says Dr. Rosso. In studies that have compared the relative risk of breast cancer in women who are in the highest tier of density (top 10%) to the lowest tier (bottom 10%), the women with extremely dense breasts (top tier) have a relative risk of 4 to 6 times greater than those at the bottom tier. 

However, says Dr. Rosso, “breast density is something you can’t really change because it’s influenced by your genetic make-up, body composition, menopausal status and hormone levels.” Rather than worry, Dr. Rosso advises you to be vigilant about your breast screenings, and to make lifestyle changes that may decrease your breast cancer risk: breastfeeding, limiting alcohol to less than one drink per day, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising at least 150 minutes per week at moderate intensity.  

Can a mammogram detect cancer in dense tissue?

About half of all women screened have what are considered “dense breasts.” About 10% of women have “extremely dense” breasts, and the density lowers the mammogram sensitivity (or ability to detect). Around 40% have a type of dense tissue called heterogeneously dense breasts, which may obscure small masses. Another 40% of women have “scattered fibro glandular densities” which means that the breast tissue is made up of areas of dense functional tissue surrounded by areas of fatty tissue. The last group, about 10% of women screened, have “almost entirely fatty” breasts, with little or no glandular tissue seen.

Every body is unique, and while we can control what we consume, we can’t control the genes we have at birth. If you have dense breasts, you may consider getting a 3-D mammogram, which is better at detecting cancer in dense breast tissue than a traditional mammogram. Dr. Rosso recommends you talk with your doctor about your breast cancer risk, based on personal factors and family history. “Women with dense breasts and a strong family history of breast cancer may be screened more frequently with breast MRI,” says Dr. Rosso. “Genetic testing may also influence screening and risk reducing recommendations as well.”

There is a lot that you can do on your own to give you peace of mind and know your body. Dr. Rosso reminds you to pay attention to changes in your breasts, including new lumps, skin thickening or leakage from the nipples. “It’s important to be familiar with how your breasts normally feel and look,” says Dr. Rosso. “Routine mammogram should start at the age of 40.”  

We’re here to help and support you. To learn more about your breast cancer risks, schedule an appointment with a Banner MD Anderson physician.

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