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Dense Breast Tissue: Everything You Need To Know
The breasts are made up of three main components: lobules, ducts, and connective tissue, which can be both greasy and fibrous.
Some women have more connective tissue than fatty tissue in their breasts. If a woman has high levels of connective tissue, a doctor can diagnose her with dense breasts.
It is important that women be aware of the density of their breasts, as thicker breasts can make it difficult to detect cancerous lesions.
Fast facts on dense breast tissue:
- Having dense breasts is not uncommon.
- Doctors diagnose dense breast tissue using an imaging scan known as a mammogram.
- Sometimes medications can affect a woman's breast density.
- Typically, a woman's breasts become less dense over time.
What is dense breast tissue?
Breast density is measured by the amount of fatty tissue in the breasts. The more fatty tissue, the less dense the breasts are.
According to some statistics, an estimated 40-50 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 74 have dense breasts.
Women with dense breasts are more likely to have false-negative mammograms than women who do not have dense breasts, according to the National Cancer Institute. Recent research studies have also linked thick breasts with an increased risk of breast cancer in both breasts.
While having a tight breast in no way guarantees that a woman can develop breast cancer, it is known to be a contributing factor and doctors are trying to further define their relationship with breast cancer.
A common misconception about dense breasts is that they are firm or large. However, a woman with firm breasts may not necessarily have thick breasts. The density of a woman's breasts can change over time. For example, as a woman ages, hormonal changes can develop more fat tissue in her breast.
There are several risk factors including:
- Age: the younger a woman is, the denser her breasts are. Older women typically have less dense breasts.
- Medication: Women who receive hormone replacement therapy after menopause may notice an increase in their breast density.
- Genetics: Women with dense breasts are more likely to have dense breasted mothers and grandmothers.
Doctors suggest that dense breast tissue is usually genetic.
Doctors can only detect dense breasts by looking at an X-ray or other imaging exam. Usually women have a mammogram. A mammogram is a chest x-ray that allows a doctor to identify potentially cancerous lesions as well as dense breast tissue.
Doctors divide breast tissue into four categories:
- mostly fatty
- scattered density
- consistent density
- extremely tight
While a doctor can classify breast tissue into these four categories, there is no formula that a woman could classify into any of them.
Typically, the fatty breast tissue appears dark and cancerous lesions appear white on an X-ray.
However, breast tissue, which is very dense, also appears white on the X-ray. This similarity in appearance can make identifying potentially cancerous lesions more difficult.
It is also possible for a doctor to diagnose particularly dense tissue as a tumor, only to determine that it is actually an area of increased breast density.
Various imaging tests, such as MRI scans, may be required to accurately diagnose dense breast tissue or tumors. Occasionally, x-rays or mammograms may not be able to detect all of the abnormal tissue. In this case, alternative imaging modalities should be considered.
Sometimes a doctor may recommend an ultrasound. Ultrasound uses sound waves and can help a radiologist see if a lump is solid or filled with fluid.
Breast tomosynthesis uses 3-D imaging to restore the breast.
While there are no ways to prevent dense breast tissue from developing, a woman can get involved in lifestyle decisions that will help her reduce her risk of breast cancer.
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- engage in regular physical activity
- Quit smoking
- Limiting alcohol consumption
Guidelines recommend no more than one drink a day for most women.
Researchers haven't established whether taking breast density drugs reduces a woman's risk of breast cancer.
A doctor will likely consider a woman's additional risks for breast cancer and recommend frame rate. For example, if a woman has a dense breast and a family history of breast cancer, she may require more frequent imaging scans.
Is There a Cancer Connection?
Women with thick breasts are linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.
According to an article in the, women with dense breast tissue are 4-5 times more likely to have breast cancer than women who don't.
Another study published in the journal found that women with dense breasts who have breast cancer in one breast are at higher risk of developing breast cancer in the opposite breast.
This knowledge can help doctors advise women on breast cancer detection and treatment approaches for women who have cancer.
More than 20 states have passed laws requiring radiologists to inform all women who have dense breasts so they are aware of their increased risk. If a woman receives this information, she should discuss it with her doctor.
If a woman has a tight breast, she should speak to her doctor about her individual risks for breast cancer because of her health and family history.
A woman and her doctor can plan a preventative plan or do additional imaging scans to further examine their breasts, if necessary.
The American Cancer Society recommends women ages 45-54 have a mammogram every year. After the age of 55, some women can switch to screenings every 2 years if they so choose.
Women with a family history who have had breast cancer or who want to start earlier can talk to their doctor about this.
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