Topic Overview

What are dense breasts?

Breasts come in all shapes and sizes. The tissue inside your breasts can be different types too. Some breast tissue is fatty. Other breast tissue is dense. "Dense" means it's made of thick, fibrous tissue and milk glands.

You can learn how dense your breasts are from your mammogram report. There are four levels of breast density:

  • Level 1: Almost all fatty tissue (1 out of 10 women)
  • Level 2: Scattered areas of dense tissue, but mostly fatty tissue (4 out of 10 women)
  • Level 3: Mixed dense and fatty tissue, also called heterogeneous (4 out of 10 women)
  • Level 4: Extremely dense tissue (1 out of 10 women)

All of these breast types are normal. You only have dense breasts if the report says that your breasts are level 3 or level 4.

Things that can affect your breast density include your family history (genetics), being pregnant, and using estrogen hormone therapy. Your age can also make a difference. Breast tissue in younger women tends to be denser than in older women who have been through menopause.

Why is it important to know about your breast density?

Having dense breasts may affect your plans for breast cancer screening. The more dense a breast is, the harder it is to see cancer on a mammogram image. That's because dense tissue looks white onscreen, just like cancer does.

Breast cancer tends to grow in dense breast tissue more often than in fatty breast tissue. So having dense breasts may slightly increase your risk for breast cancer.

On its own, breast density is not a major risk factor for cancer. Your overall risk is based on facts like how old you are, whether you've ever had breast cancer before, and whether any of your close relatives, such as your mother or sister, have had breast cancer.

For more information about your personal risk level, go to www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool.

How do you learn about your breast density?

You can't tell how dense your breasts are by looking in the mirror or feeling them. The mammogram report sent to your doctor tells how dense your breasts are. It's written by the radiologist who reads your mammogram.

If you have questions about your breast density or other concerns, get a copy of your mammogram report. Then talk to your doctor about it.

What are my options for screening dense breasts for breast cancer?

If you have dense breasts but no other risk factors for breast cancer, a mammogram is the recommended test. There isn't enough evidence from studies to show that having other tests will help you.1

If you have dense breasts and other risk factors for breast cancer, talk with your doctor to decide about screening. For more information, see the topic Click here to view a Decision Point. Breast Cancer: What Should I Do if I'm at High Risk?.

In some cases, if further screening is needed, a breast ultrasound or MRI may be done.

If breast cancer screening tests can't tell you that a spot is harmless, your next step is to decide whether to have a biopsy tested for cancer cells.

Newer screening technology

There are new tests for detecting breast cancer. But they need more research before they become widely available and paid for by insurance. The most promising of these is digital breast tomosynthesis. This test is also called tomography or 3D mammography.

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References

Citations

  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2014). Management of women with dense breasts diagnosed by mammography. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 593. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 123(4): 910–911. DOI: 10.1097/01.AOG.0000445584.44898.7d. Accessed October 23, 2014.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Howard Schaff, MD - Diagnostic Radiology

Current as ofNovember 14, 2014