What Does it Mean to Have Dense Breast Tissue?

You may have heard the term ‘dense breast’ tissue at your doctor’s office or even in a recent health headline on the news, but what does it mean to have dense breast tissue for women? And, what does dense breast tissue have to do with breast cancer? 

Continue reading to discover what it means to have dense breasts and the next steps to take to ensure proper screening.

What is Dense Breast Tissue?

Breasts contain three types of tissue: glandular, connective and fat tissue. Simply put, dense breast refers to the amount of fibrous and glandular tissue in a woman’s breast compared to fatty tissue as seen on a mammogram. 

Do not panic if you find out you have dense breast tissue as it is extremely common in women; approximately 50% of the women in the United States have dense breast tissue. It is not entirely known why some women have more dense breast tissue than others, but density can be related to a number of factors, including being a younger age, having a lower body mass index or taking hormone therapy for menopause.

How Does Dense Breast Tissue Relate to Breast Cancer?

First off, it is critical to know if you have dense breast tissue because women with dense breasts have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. This risk exceeds family history. This is why knowing your breast density status is so important. A Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System are used to categorize breast density into 4 different groups:

  • (A) Fatty - Breast is composed almost entirely of fatty breast tissue (represents 10% of women)
  • (B) Scattered - Glandular and fibrous tissue is present throughout (represents 40% of women)
  • (C) Heterogeneously - Many areas of dense breast tissue from glandular and fibrous connective tissue (represents 40% of women)
  • (D) Extremely - Very dense breast tissue (represents 10% of women)

Women with breasts that are categorized as heterogeneously dense or extremely dense are considered to have dense breasts. 

Mammograms and dense breast tissue

Mammograms and Dense Breast Tissue 

To determine if you have dense breasts, you must undergo a mammogram, as breast density cannot be felt in a clinical or self-breast exam. Your Radiologist will inform you what density category you fall into. While it’s critical to undergo a mammogram to determine this status, another screening should be performed in order to detect cancers in women with dense breast tissue. 

Mammography is well known to be a powerful screening tool in the detection of early breast cancer, but this is an imperfect tool, particularly for women with dense breasts. This is because dense breast tissue makes mammograms more difficult to read because fibrous and glandular tissue appears white on the mammogram, which can lead to missed calcifications and tumors that also appear white. This is why breast density predicts the accuracy of a mammogram at any age. 

Breast Ultrasounds and Dense Breast Tissue 

Breast ultrasound is a powerful screening tool that can see beyond glandular and connective tissue. This tool uses sound waves to see through breast tissue. Studies have found that mammography misses every other cancer in dense breasts.  In fact, breast ultrasound has been shown to increase early detection rates of breast cancer from approximately 48% to 97% in women with dense breasts, making it an invaluable screening tool to add to your breast health regimen. 

Other studies have shown that ultrasound significantly increases the detection of small, largely invasive, node-negative cancers. Unlike a mammogram that can hide tumors and calcifications, a breast ultrasound shows cancers dark and glandular tissue as light, creating contrast for Radiologists to detect small cancers. 

We are not advocating for you to skip your mammogram, we are advocating for women to do everything possible to protect themselves in the fight against breast cancer and stay informed about their breast density. Cancers that are detected early have better treatment options and survival outcomes. 

If you want to do more for your health, schedule a Breast Ultrasound Screening appointment with us. HerScan is a mobile breast screening service, meaning we travel all over the country to hundreds of different cities to hold our health events. ​Click here to schedule an appointment in your city today.

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