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Can Dense Breast Tissue Turn Into Cancer?

Going by what doctors say, women with dense breast tissues are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Dense breast tissues are detected via a mammogram. A few other imaging tests are also recommended to women who have dense breast tissues.

What Is Dense Breast Tissue?

This condition is determined by observing the appearance of breast tissue on a mammogram. This finding is not uncommon.

The breast tissue is made up of milk ducts, milk glands, supportive tissue (which is the dense breast tissue) and fatty tissue (which is nothing but the nondense breast tissue).

When a mammogram is done, women who have dense breasts would show more dense tissue compared to fatty tissue. When seen on a mammogram, the nondense breast tissue would appear transparent and dark. A solid white area observed on the mammogram indicates dense breast tissue. This is not transparent and hence difficult to see through.

What Does Dense Breast Tissue Feel Like?

When women have dense breast tissue, feeling lumps (that might be indicative of cancer) or any other changes in your breast might be difficult to identify. However, it is important to know that all breast cancer lumps are not the same, nor do they feel the same. Lumpy breasts do not mean that you have dense breasts. Moreover, a fibrocystic breast is different from a dense breast.

The presence of dense breast tissue is determined by a radiologist who analyzes the images obtained after a mammogram. The ratio of nondense tissue to dense tissue is identified and the level of breast density is assigned as the result. The results are made available to the doctor using a reporting system known as Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System. The results could be inferred as:

A: Almost entirely fatty (breasts almost entirely composed of fat)
B: Scattered areas of fibroglandular density (presence of some scattered areas of density, majority of the breast tissue is nondense)
C: Heterogeneously dense (some areas of nondense tissue, majority of the breast tissue is dense)
D: Extremely dense (nearly all of the breast tissue is dense)

Women who fall under category C and D are considered to have dense breasts.

What Causes Dense Breasts?

There is no clear medical evidence or justification as to why some women have a lot of dense tissue while others do not. The chances of having dense breasts are high due to the following reasons:

• Young age: As you age, your breast tissue becomes less dense. Nevertheless, some women still continue to have dense breasts even at an older age.
• Lower body index: Women who are lean, or otherwise have less body fat, tend to have denser breast tissue as compared to obese women.
• Hormone therapy for menopause: Menopause comes with its own set of signs and symptoms. Many women opt for hormone therapy to relieve the signs and symptoms of menopause. This might lead to such women having dense breasts.

Should You Worry About Dense Breast Tissue?

This is how having dense breasts might affect you:

• Increases the risk of breast cancer (although there is still no scientific evidence as to why this happens).
• The chances of breast cancer going undetected become high via a mammogram. Just knowing that you have dense breast tissue should not make you anxious. Finding dense breast tissue on a mammogram is quite common. A screening breast MRI might be recommended by your doctor if you have dense breasts and are also at a risk of potential breast cancer.

Regular mammogram testing is recommended for all women beginning at the age of 40 years. The screening should be repeated annually. Women who are at a risk of breast cancer would highly benefit from the annual breast cancer screening.

Cancer, as well as dense breast tissue, appears on a mammogram, hence making it difficult to interpret the mammogram results. Very dense breast tissue increases the chances of cancer not being detected via the mammogram.

Digital mammogram works by saving images of your breasts in the digital format. These images are then analyzed. The digital form of mammogram is more effective in finding cancer in dense breast tissue when compared to the older technique of film mammogram technology.

Can Breast Density Change Over Time?

Breast density is likely to change with age. Older women tend to have a lower breast density when compared to women of a younger age. The change in the density of the breasts is primarily due to reaching menopause. Certain types of hormones or hormone therapies can cause changes in the breast density. People who are on hormone therapies (such as hormone therapy for menopause) do see changes in the density of their breasts. However, in case of doubt, consulting a doctor is always advisable.

Story first published: Monday, October 8, 2018, 12:00 [IST]
Read more about: breast cancer