Ask the Doctor
Do you have dense breasts?
Do you know the density of your breast tissue? Chances are the answer is no - because no one has told you and you didn't know it was important to your health. But there is increasing awareness that women with dense breasts can be at greater risk for breast cancer. Carrie Morrison, MD, Director of Breast Imaging at St. Luke's Hospital, explains why.
WHY YOU need to know.
Q: What is dense breast tissue?
A: Breast tissue is comprised of fat, glandular and connective tissue. Women with dense breasts have more fibrous and glandular tissue and less fat. About 40 percent of women have dense breast tissue.
Q: Why should I care about my breast density?
A: On a mammogram, dense breast tissue can hide abnormalities like cancer. Unlike fatty breast tissue that shows up dark on a mammogram, dense breast tissue appears white. Cancer and other abnormalities also appear white, so we say it is like looking for a snowball in a snowstorm. Mammography misses nearly 50 percent of breast cancers in women with dense breast tissue. Finding cancers early, when they are smaller, often means they are more treatable.
Q: How do I know if I have dense breasts?
A: How a woman's breasts look or feel has nothing to do with her breast density. A radiologist can determine breast density by examining a mammogram. While this information has generally been included in radiology reports, it hasn't been clearly understood that density mattered, so it typically hasn't been shared. In recent years, there has been more attention given to the risk of dense breast tissue and its importance in assessing a woman's risk for breast cancer.
Q: What should I do?
A: Learn your breast density. Ask the technician at the time of your mammogram, call the radiology department after your mammogram, or ask your doctor for that information from your mammogram report. At St. Luke's, breast density is included in the radiologist's report and will soon be provided to every patient with her mammogram results.
Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider. Mammography has proven time and again to be the best screening tool in the early detection of breast cancer. However, for women with dense breasts, mammography alone may not be enough. There are various tools available to further assess a woman with dense breasts, including whole breast ultrasound or breast MRI. Recommendations vary for each woman based on her level of breast density and individual risk.
For more information on breast density, whole breast ultrasound (including SonoCiné) and breast cancer risk assessment options, visit our breast health services section.
It is not required in the state of Missouri for patients to be notified of their breast density, but there is legislation pending to mandate it. This varies state by state. Only a few states currently mandate insurance to cover additional screening for women with dense breasts, but that effort, too, is growing.
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