"You Have Dense Breasts": This Information May Save Your Life

"You Have Dense Breasts": This Information May Save Your Life

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, I was told by the mammography radiologist that I had dense breasts.  This was the first time I had ever heard this, and I'd been getting mammograms for 10 years.

In fact, I had never heard of dense breasts before and asked him what he meant.  He explained "Your breasts are really dense and so the mammogram isn't able to see if there are any other lumps or suspicious areas in them."  I pressed for more information and he then explained that when breast tissue is dense, it's more fibrous instead of fatty which makes it very difficult to see anything in them, even with a mammogram.

breast exam

Image: Breast Exam via Shutterstock

Over the years when I've had my annual mammogram, I've often had to have multiple films done or a complete 2nd set of films because the radiologist couldn't get a good read from the first set.  But no one ever told me that the reason they couldn't get a good view of my breast tissue was because I had dense breasts. I always just assumed it was the typical process to have multiple sets done, or to have to go back for 2nd sets periodically.

After the radiologist at the Imaging Center told me I had dense breasts I went online and searched for information.

What I learned was that women with dense breasts need to be aware so that they can be even more careful about doing self exams, getting annual mammograms and asking for additional options (ultrasound or MRI) if they have any suspicious or unusual mammogram results.

  • Forty percent of women have dense breast tissue
  • Mammography often misses cancer in dense breasts
  • Dense tissue is comprised of less fat and more fibrous and connective tissue and appears white on a mammogram
  • Women with dense breasts can be six times more likely to develop breast cancer

Please note: If you do have dense breasts, it doesn't mean you have or will get breast cancer.

It simply means that because dense breasts have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue, it's harder for mammograms to detect breast cancer in them.

Breastcancer.org is a wonderful resource that suggests that women with dense breasts develop a personal screening plan with their physician, which should include:

  • Monthly breast self exams
  • A yearly breast exam by your doctor
  • A digital mammogram every year starting at age 40 
  • You and your doctor may also decide to include an ultrasound and MRI of the breast in your annual personal screening plan if you have any unusual or suspicious mammogram results. 

There are also several other sites listed below with information about breast density, several provide downloadable brochures:

At your next annual mammogram, please remember to ask the radiologist if you have dense breasts. It's not actually mandatory that it be noted on your mammogram report in many states, so make a point to specifically ask your radiologist, because they may not tell you. (No one told me until after I was diagnosed with breast cancer.)

Information is power and the more information you have the more you can be your own advocate.

Finally, if you do have dense breasts, according to breastcancer.org there are several lifestyle choices you can make to keep your breast cancer risk as low as it can be:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Eat nutritious food
  • Don't smoke (or quit if you do smoke)

Claudia Schmidt blogs at My Left Breast

You can also follow her on Twitter @claudoo

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