What does it mean to have dense breasts?

July 03, 2018 | by Christine Gresik, MD

If you’ve received a call from your doctor letting you know that your mammogram was inconclusive because you have dense breasts, you aren’t alone. Having dense breasts is normal and common. So what does the word “dense” really mean?

Breasts are made up of lobules, ducts and fatty and fibrous connective tissue. Breast density compares the area of breast and connective tissue seen on a mammogram to the area of fat. Your breasts are considered dense if they have a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue and not much fat.

Here's the breakdown:

  •  High breast density means there's a greater amount of breast and connective tissue compared to fat.
  •  Low breast density means there's a greater amount of fat compared to breast and connective tissue.

Breast and connective tissue are denser than fat, and the difference shows up on a mammogram.

Non-dense breast tissue appears dark and transparent in a mammogram — making it easier for a radiologist to review your results. For women who have dense breasts, the tissue appears as a solid white area or light gray, which makes it more difficult to read.

Some women have denser breast tissue than others, but for most women, breasts become less dense as they age.

You won’t be able to tell if you have dense breasts by how your breasts feel on the outside. Only your doctor can tell if you have dense breasts after you’ve had a mammogram.

Do dense breasts increase my risk for cancer?

Women who have dense breasts have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer compared to women with less dense breast tissue, but it’s unclear to researchers at this time why that is the case.

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Eating nutritious food
  • Avoiding smoking, or quitting if you do smoke

Knowledge is power in breast cancer prevention. By controlling your diet and exercising, you can help reduce your risk.

Do I need additional screening if I have dense breasts?

Research continues to be unclear whether additional screening like an ultrasound or MRI is needed for women with dense breasts, according to the U.S. Preventative Task Force.

3D mammograms, though, have been useful for women with dense breasts. 3D mammograms are able to provide an image of the breast from multiple layers, angels or slices, which makes finding abnormalities, lumps or tumors easier. Learn more about detecting breast cancer with a 3D mammogram.

If you have a higher risk of developing cancer because of dense breasts, you can talk to your doctor about developing a screening plan. Current screening guidelines include:

  • A monthly self-breast exam
  • A yearly breast exam by your doctor
  • A digital mammogram every year starting at age 40

As always, early detection is key to finding breast cancer when it is most treatable.

Learn more about breast health at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

Answers to your FAQs about mammograms

Does a lump always mean cancer?


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