Understanding Breast Density

Breast density describes the composition of a woman’s breasts. Breasts are made up of glands, fat and thickened tissue, but the amounts of each of these components vary from woman to woman. Women who have more milk producing, milk transporting and connecting tissues as compared to fatty tissues are considered to have high breast density.

As we discussed in this blog post, a woman’s breasts change as she advances through the stages of life and breast density is part of this. For many women, breast density will decrease with age as well as with each pregnancy. However, some women may maintain high breast density throughout their lives because of other factors like family history, body weight and postmenopausal hormone use.

Just like family history, breast density is a risk factor that is taken into account when determining the best breast cancer screening plan for a patient. Because of a recent law passed by the state of Virginia, women who have dense breast tissue will now be informed of this from both the radiologist who interprets the mammogram results as well as the referring provider (in our patients’ case, Virginia Women’s Center). This notification is now required because dense breast tissue may hide cancer or other abnormalities from the radiologists who are interpreting the screening mammogram.

Women who have dense breast tissue may have an increased risk for breast cancer. However, at this time, the amount of this risk is not understood and continues to be debated among health care professionals. Aside from receiving regular mammograms and clinical breast exams, and performing monthly breast self-exams, there are no specific or additional screening recommendations for women with dense breasts.

There are many studies that are evaluating the relationship between breast density and breast cancer, but currently, there are no specific recommendations on how to lower breast cancer risk for women who have dense breasts. However, all women can take steps to lower their overall breast cancer risk by not smoking, limiting alcohol use, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a normal weight.

Please note: Your health care provider can determine the best breast cancer screening plan for you based on your individual health and family history.

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