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Breast density and your breast cancer risk

Body, Breast Cancer Awareness, Show on Corporate Home

About half of all women over 40 have dense breasts. If you are part of that half, your breast density may come up with your healthcare provider or following your mammogram. You may be wondering: what does having dense breasts mean? And, more importantly, how does it affect my health?

Why do I need to know about breast density?

Contrary to how the term sounds, breast density doesn’t have anything to do with size or firmness. Rather, density refers to the proportion of fatty tissue to other types of tissue. People with dense breasts have more connective or milk-producing tissue versus fatty tissue. Anyone can have dense breasts, although it’s more common in women who have taken hormone therapy or who are at a lower body weight.

A mammogram is the only way to determine a person’s breast density. For women with dense breasts, interpreting the mammogram can be a little bit trickier because dense tissue and tumor tissue both show up white on a mammogram. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t get mammograms if you have dense breasts. On the contrary, regular screening mammograms are one of the best tools for detecting and treating breast cancer early.

What can I do to lower my risk?

Some screening options, such as 3D mammograms, can be a better test for detecting tumor tissue in women with dense breasts. A healthcare provider may also recommend an ultrasound or MRI, depending on the woman’s risk profile.

For most women, the American College of Radiology advises that screening mammograms start at age 40. Women with an overall higher risk of breast cancer may need to start getting mammograms sooner. Dense breasts can slightly increase a woman’s breast cancer risk. However, many factors go into overall risk, including:

  • BRCA gene mutation
  • Strong family history of breast cancer
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Undergoing chest radiation at a young age
  • Lifestyle habits

While many factors are out of a woman’s control, some lifestyle choices can decrease risk. For example, women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a smaller likelihood of getting cancer than non-drinkers, while women who consume two to three drinks per day increase their risk by 20%.

Women who have children before age 30 or who breastfeed for a year or more can also lower their risk. And, as with many conditions, exercising regularly and staying within a healthy weight range can have a significant impact on improving your health.

The most important way you can lower your risk? Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk factors and what screenings will be most beneficial for you. To learn more about cancer risk and prevention, find a provider near you.