Not sure what dense breast is? Or how dense breast affects your breast screenings? Breast Surgeon, Mr Su-Wen Loh (FRACS), explains everything you need to know .
What is dense breast?
Your breasts are made up from glandular elements and fibrous stroma – the support structure of the breast. Your breasts are classified as dense when you have lots of overlapping fibrous stroma and glandular tissue, making it difficult to detect abnormalities on a mammogram.
You may have heard of dense breast in relation to breast cancer. And while it’s true if you have very dense breasts you could be at a higher risk of getting breast cancer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will get cancer as some information says. It can, however, pose a challenge when screening or when operating. Mr Su-Wen Loh, a Breast Surgeon at Epworth Hospital explains:
“There are varying degrees of density. The denser someone’s breasts are the higher the number of glandular elements and ductal tissue - and that’s what cancer grows from. Logically, your chance of having a cancer is higher than if you had fewer glandular elements. But it’s hard to accurately compare due to different factors such as genetics and environmental factors.”
So you can see why breast screening is an important part of regular health checks.
Why is breast screening important?
Doctors use mammograms to see abnormalities on your breast tissue. These abnormalities tend to appear as white calcifications, white bursts or white masses and can easily be spotted against the grey backdrop of the mammogram. However, if your breast tissue is very dense, doctors aren’t able to see the abnormalities as easily.
If doctors aren’t able to get a clear reading from your mammogram, Su-Wen says they may recommend you undergo additional screening. “If you do have dense breasts you don’t need to do anything differently and should maintain your two- yearly screenings,” says Su-Wen. “The only difference is that you may need to supplement your mammogram with an ultrasound or consider a breast MRI if your breast density is high.”
If you have no additional risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer then you should start having breast screens every two years from the age of 50. If you do have a family history or any past concerns, then those details should be explored by your GP. A common option is to start breast screening earlier, for example at the age of 40, so a doctor can monitor any changes in the breast tissue as a person ages into their 50’s where the chance of breast cancer incidents are much higher.
What should women look out for?
“You definitely need to look out for any changes on your skin – redness, puckering, and lumps - but usually breast screening is a far better mode of detection,” explains Su-Wen. “Screening is the only way you can accurately see something developing or identify very small changes in your breast tissue.”
Examining your breasts by sight and touch regularly is good, but often this isn’t enough as once you can see something in the mirror - like a change in contour or feel a lump - it’s usually at a more advanced stage than if you found it during a breast screen.
Is dense breast treatable?
While you may have heard or read that losing weight will help reduce your breast density, “the truth is it is very likely a predetermined thing, it’s in your genetics how dense your breasts are,” says Su-Wen. “If you have a family history of dense breasts, then there will be a higher chance that yours will be dense too.” You can learn more about the steps you can take to reduce breast density at BreastCancer.org.
Speak with your local GP at your next breast examination to determine the right screening plan for you, or visit Epworth Freemasons Breast Services for a same-day service.
You can also learn more about dense breast at AreYouDense.org.