We’re sure you’ve noticed that no two breasts are created equal. Or, maybe you haven’t. Come to think of it, some of the most common questions we’re asked by our clients involve their breasts and whether their size, shape, dissimilar shape, nipple size/color is normal. In almost all cases, the answer is, “Absolutely!” However, just as breasts differ on the outside, they also differ on the inside.
Breasts are comprised of multiple types of tissue, including fibrous tissue and fat (providing their general shape), lobules that produce breast milk (also called glandular tissue) and ducts that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipples. The amount of lobules each breast contains is largely due to genetics. Some women have more and some have less. In most cases, the number of glands you have won’t affect your ability to breastfeed, but they can affect mammogram readings and a doctor’s or radiologist’s ability to detect breast lumps.
Are you overdue for a wellness visit and routine breast exam? Contact your healthcare provider to schedule an appointment.
What is Dense Breast Tissue?
If you have ever had a mammogram or breast exam in a doctor’s office, your doctor or a mammogram reading may report you have dense breasts when the quantity of fibrous and glandular tissue is greater than the fat tissue. You’ll be able to tell this for yourself when you perform your self-breast exam each month; your fingers will notice that there are lots of largish, harder lumps and striations amidst the more malleable, fatty tissue. The more often you do your exam, the more you’ll get to know the feeling and location of these lumps and bumps, making you more familiar with your breasts’ internal landscape.
Breast density is quite normal (about 40% of women have dense breast tissue and 10% have extremely dense breast tissue) so don’t be alarmed if mammogram results report your breast tissue is dense. Odds are it will also tell you to consider having a mammogram more often (since abnormal tumors can be harder to locate in dense breast tissue), and that you perform self-breast exams on a regular basis.
Women With Dense Breast Tissue Have a Slightly Higher Breast Cancer Risk
We’re not 100% sure why this is the case, but breast cancer rates are slightly higher in women with dense breast tissue. As mentioned above, we do know that dense breast tissue makes it more difficult for radiologists to detect tumors because both dense tissue and tumors (also dense) appear white on the breast images. Fatty tissue, on the other hand, appears black. If you have dense tissue and small lump, or lump that blends in with the denser tissue, the lump may not be distinguishable from the surrounding white masses in the image.
Should I do Anything Differently if I Have Dense Breast Tissue?
Not necessarily. Beyond mammograms, there are two other diagnostic tests – ultrasound and MRI – that can also locate cancerous tumors in breast tissue. The problem is that they often detect all sorts of “abnormal” tissue that isn’t cancerous at all, which leads to worry and unnecessary further testing and/or biopsies. Also, in most cases, these tests are not covered by health insurance, so the price tag adds up quickly. Thus, your healthcare provider probably won’t recommend either right away, or may choose to integrate one or the other in addition to a mammogram every few or handful of years just to be safe.
The first thing you’ll want to do if you are told you have dense breast tissue is to check in with your healthcare provider to find out what it means to her. She will let you know the specifics as well as what she recommends going forward.
The most important thing you can do is get to know your own breasts. Look at them in the mirror, perform breast exams every month, at about the same time (glandular tissue changes throughout your menstrual cycle so by performing your exam at about the same point in your cycle, you’ll be better able to detect any abnormalities). Heck, check them out every week for the first couple of months so you get to know your breasts in all of their various phases. The point being, the more familiar you are, the more likely you are to detect any abnormalities as soon as possible.
Finally, if you do notice, feel or see anything different or unusual with your breasts, schedule an appointment immediately. We’d much rather tell you, “it’s nothing to be concerned about,” than to hear you noticed something a few months ago…and we have to tell you it is something to be concerned about. The earlier we detect a problem, the more options we have to treat it.