News + Insights  |  October 20, 2017  |  Kerry E. Chandler, MD

What Does It Really Mean to Have Dense Breasts?

Just like camouflage it used to hide things, dense breast tissue can make it difficult to detect breast cancer. Learning that you have dense breast tissue can be confusing. From questions about how it’s related to breast cancer to what it means for your long-term health, it’s important for women to understand breast density. In fact, women are often surprised that having dense breasts is more common that they expect.

Defining Dense Breast Tissue

Breast density describes how much fibroglandular tissue versus fatty tissue a woman has in her breasts.

A woman has dense breasts if more than half of her breast tissue is fibroglandular and less than half of her breast tissue is made up fatty tissue.

3D mammograms help detect cancers in dense breasts.

Dense Breast Tissue Looks White

Fibroglandular tissue appears “white” on a mammogram while fatty tissue appears more “dark gray.”

Fatty or scattered breast density makes it easier for a radiologist to recognize abnormalities in the breast tissue. The denser the tissue, the more difficult it is to identify subtle changes that could represent an abnormality.

Dense Breast Impacts Cancer Detection

When a radiologist reviews a screening mammogram, she looks for a developing “white” density. Cancerous tissue typically presents “white.” For women who have dense breasts, their normal, background density also appears “white” on the mammogram.

That’s why identifying a developing “white” density that radiologists typically expect with a developing breast cancer can be more difficult to detect on a dense breast patient. It is like trying to see a polar bear in a snowstorm.

3D Mammography Helps Detect Breast Cancer

3D mammography is the most revolutionary breakthrough in breast cancer detection in the last 20 years and is beneficial for all women, particularly those with dense breasts. A 3D mammogram takes multiple pictures through the breast tissue allowing the radiologist to page through the individual images like pages in a book. This enables radiologists to more clearly determine the difference between dense breast tissue and cancers.

If your mammogram results letter states that you have heterogeneous breast density or dense breast density, we encourage you to know more about your breast health. Our video on breast density may help you understand why 3D mammography is particularly beneficial for patients with dense breasts.

If you have questions about your breast density, we encourage you to talk with your healthcare provider and consider having a 3D screening mammogram. Wake Radiology is the Triangle’s leader in 3D mammography with multiple offices throughout the Triangle. You can schedule a mammogram appointment by calling 919-232-4700 or by requesting an appointment online.

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