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Do you have dense breasts? Your risk for breast cancer could be higher

Lifestyle, genetics, menstrual history also contribute to breast cancer risk

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels.
Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels.


This article was written and paid for by Baptist Health.

Half of all women in the U.S. have dense breasts. Although common, many women aren't sure what that means.

Breasts are comprised of two types of tissue -- dense tissue, which is fibrous and glandular, and non-dense, fatty tissue. Viewed on a mammogram, breasts with more dense tissue than fatty tissue are considered to be dense.

Having dense breasts makes it harder to detect breast cancer.

"When you have a mammogram, fatty tissue appears dark, but dense breast tissue appears as a solid white area," said Beth-Ann Lesnikosksi, MD, FACS, a surgeon and director of the Breast Program at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. "Because tumors and calcifications also appear white on a mammogram, they can be harder to find when there is dense breast tissue."

According the National Cancer Institute, women with dense breasts have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with fatty breasts, and the risk increases with increasing breast density.

The first step to find out if you have dense breasts is to have an annual mammogram, recommended for women 40 and older. "Neither you nor your doctor can detect dense breast tissue through a self-exam or clinical exam. Getting a mammogram is the only way to know," Dr. Lesnikoski said.

If you have dense breasts, understanding your breast cancer risk can help you and your physician make the best treatment decisions.

"A woman's risk of breast cancer and her breast density are, in part, determined by how much estrogen she has," said Dr. Lesnikoski. "It is really quite normal for premenopausal women to have dense breasts on a mammogram because estrogen levels are higher prior to menopause. The elevation in breast cancer risk is more significant for women who still have dense breasts after menopause."

Whether you have dense breasts or not, there are a number of other factors that can affect a woman’s breast cancer risk, such as lifestyle, family history and menstrual history, among others.

"Talk to your doctor about your breast cancer risks," said Dr. Lesnikoski. Women with dense breasts and other risk factors may want to consider consulting in the Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Program at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center to determine their lifetime risk percentage. For those with a family history of breast cancer, genetic counseling is also available.

For women with dense breast tissue, other screening methods for detecting breast cancer may be recommended. Baptist Health offers a range of screening options, including digital 2D and 3D mammography, breast MRIs and molecular breast imaging. You can learn more here or you can request a mammogram appointment by calling 904.202.2222.