We all know that breasts come in all shapes and sizes, but many women do not realize that the unique anatomy and composition of your breasts may, in some rare cases, pose unforeseen health risks. I am talking about dense breasts, an extremely common condition that affects roughly half of all women. Although it is not harmful or even particularly problematic in itself, dense breast tissue can potentially make scanning for some forms of breast cancer more difficult. Understanding what the term means, and whether or not it applies to you, is an important step towards making sure that you avoid any unnecessary worry or confusion.
The anatomy of the female breast is more complicated than most people realize. The breast itself is composed of milk glands, milk ducts, dense supportive tissues (like muscle etc.) and non-dense fatty tissue. Different women have different proportions of fatty and dense breast tissue present in their breasts, and roughly half of all women have breasts that are considered to be more dense than average. It is not clear why some women have denser breast tissue than others, but studies have found that women are more likely to have dense breasts if they are younger, are premenopausal, or take hormone therapy for menopause. Additionally, the artificial silicone breast implants that are used during breast augmentation and some forms of breast reconstruction can act in a manner similar to dense breast tissue when scanned by a mammogram.
A woman’s breast density matters because it can affect scanning for breast cancer. When viewed on a standard mammogram, fatty tissue appears dark because it is transparent to the low-energy x-rays that are used for screening. Dense tissues, on the other hand, appear as solid white, opaque areas, making it difficult to distinguish whether any abnormalities are present. Because dense breast tissue and signs of breast cancer both appear as white on a mammogram, having dense breasts may mean that you need to take extra steps to ensure that your breast cancer screening is effective. New technology for the early detection of breast cancer, such as a breast MRI, a breast ultrasound, or 3-D breast tomosynthesis, can all potentially be used to provide additional detail if the initial scan is unclear. However, while there is evidence that these additional tests can make it more likely that early signs of breast cancer will be detected in dense breast tissue, they can also carry additional risks. It is important to discuss the matter with your doctor, who will consider your age, physical condition, and medical history when determining what scanning methods will be the right choice for you.
If you have any other questions about the various issues surrounding breast care, you can get the latest breast health tips by checking out my Blogging for Breast Care site or by following me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. If you are interested in learning more about the cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery procedures that I perform or if you would like a personal consultation to determine what procedures might be best for you, please feel free to contact me, Dr. Philip Beegle, to schedule an appointment.