The Dense Breasts Cancer Risk Factor

About one in eight women in the U.S. will have breast cancer in her lifetime. This is a staggering statistic. The good news is more women are aware of their risk factors due  to improved awareness, education, advanced diagnostic screenings, and genetic testing options.

“Doctors review many risk factors for breast cancer, including age, genetic mutations, and family history,” says Ryan Gruner, MD, FACS, a breast surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. “However, another common risk factor that many women aren’t as familiar with is the density of breast tissue, or dense breasts.”

What Is Breast Density?

Density refers to the amount and type of breast tissue seen on a mammogram. Dense breast tissue includes milk glands, milk ducts, and fibrous, supportive tissue. Non-dense breast tissue is fatty tissue. When viewed on a mammogram, dense breast tissue appears as a solid white area, which can make it difficult to detect abnormalities.

Nearly half of all women ages 40 and older have dense breasts.

What Causes Dense Breasts?

It is unclear why some women have denser breast tissue than others. However, there are a few factors that indicate why some women are more likely to have dense breasts.

  • Younger age. As women age, breast tissue tends to become less dense, although some women may have dense breasts at any age.
  • Lower body mass index (BMI). Women with less body fat are more likely to have dense breast tissue compared with women who have more body fat.
  • Hormone therapy. Women who take combination hormone therapy to relieve the signs and symptoms of menopause are more likely to have dense breasts.

Why Does Breast Density Matter?

“Looking at dense breast tissue with mammography is like looking through a cloud. It’s not always clear,” Dr. Gruner says. “Dense tissue can hide cancers because it can be hard to tell the difference between a tumor and dense breast tissue on a mammogram, and a small tumor may be missed.”

Recent research shows that women with dense breasts have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with less dense breast tissue. Unfortunately, the ability to evaluate dense breasts on a mammogram is limited.

It’s important for all women ages 40 and older to get an annual mammogram. If you have been told that you have dense breasts, regular mammograms are even more important. Your health care provider may recommend additional breast ultrasound studies.

MD Anderson at Cooper has a special program for women who have dense breasts. The breast health experts at MD Anderson at Cooper’s Dense Breast Clinic provide women with a comprehensive physical examination, review of existing breast imaging studies, and other risk factors. The team then develops personalized screening recommendations for each woman.

Mammograms at Cooper

Cooper’s Breast Imaging Centers have been designated Breast Imaging Centers of Excellence by the American College of Radiology. Cooper is the only hospital-based imaging program in South Jersey with this designation.

All of Cooper’s Breast Imaging Centers are equipped with 3D mammogram as the standard technology for diagnostic mammography. A 3D mammogram (breast tomosynthesis) takes multiple X-rays to create a 3D image of the breast. This allows doctors to thoroughly screen for breast cancer, including dense breast tissue.

If your doctor requests further imaging, our centers also offer advanced screening and technologies, including MRI and breast ultrasound.

“Unfortunately, breast density can’t be changed, but knowledge is power, and the experts at MD Anderson at Cooper are here for you,” Dr. Gruner says.

For more information about the Dense Breast Clinic at MD Anderson at Cooper, click here.

You can schedule a mammogram at our locations in Camden, Cherry Hill, and Voorhees. Click here for more information about our Breast Imaging Centers and to schedule an appointment today. Immediate mammogram screening appointments are available.

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