During the month of October, many women find themselves asking 'How dense are my breasts?'...and no, it’s not to their husbands! However, this needs to be something that is paid attention to year round, not just in the month of October. Breast density is rated on a 1-4 scale (4 being the most dense) “using the Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS) of the American College of Radiology,” and out of all women, about half fall into categories 3 and 4.
What makes dense breasts dense?
Remember breasts are not just for catching the attention of the cute guy across the bar or to drain your wallet with expensive bras; they’re glands, and their primary use is to produce milk.
The fibro-glandular tissue surrounding the milk-producing lobules and milk-transporting ducts gives your breasts their shape and size, and the more of that tissue you have, the denser breasts you have.
Am I at a higher risk for breast cancer if I have dense breasts?
The answer to this question is yes, you are more likely to develop breast cancer based on the density of your breasts; however, you are not more likely to die from that diagnosis.
However, with that being said, it is oftentimes harder to detect breast cancer in dense breasts. Both the fibro-glandular tissue and tumors appear white on the mammogram scans.
What can I do?
“Knowledge is power when it comes to your health,” says Baptist Health Breast Center radiologist, Dr. Cristina Viera. Nearly 40,000 American women die of breast cancer annually, so ask your doctor about the density of your breasts and how you should proceed.
There are some groups like How Dense Are You who are working to pass legislation to give women more information on dense breasts within their mammography results.
While about a dozen states have enacted these laws, there’s really no need for it if the patients will take the initiative to ask the questions and educate themselves on their own bodies.
What’s next in women’s imaging?
Mammography is still the first authority in breast scanning and cancer detection. Mammography scans are reported to have lowered the likelihood of dying from breast cancer by 30%.
Women with dense breasts may need further screening. Dr. Hayes from Radiology Associates of Florida, the chief of Women’s Imagine, compares women’s imaging to a road trip: “If you are planning to drive from Florida to Maine, you look at a large map to see what states you’ll pass through. Then, when you get on the road, you consult local maps for detailed driving directions.”
For women with dense breasts, those state maps include 3-D mammography/tomosynthesis, chest MRI, or bilateral ultrasound.
The 3-D mammography machine creates an image measuring each millimeter of thickness, allowing the doctors to detect areas of dense tissue and conduct a more guided investigation for cancer. Tomography has lowered false positives by 20%.
Chest MRIs are usually recommended for women whose mothers had breast cancer or sister in her 30s or 40s or women who had chest radiation (like as a treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma) at an early age.
Bilateral ultrasounds are also an option, proven to uncover an additional 3-4 more cancers for every 1,000 women screened. It’s important to stay aware of your own body, and ask the right questions. You can read the full article from the Miami Herald here.