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Very Dense Breasts Linked to Higher Risk

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Diane Balma's experiences are important for women with dense breasts and for their doctors. A study adds to research that shows that women with very dense breasts have a much higher risk (4 to 6 times higher) of breast cancer compared to women with breasts that are not dense.

Breast tissue contains both glands (that can produce breast milk) and fat. Each woman's breasts are made up of different amounts of glands and fat. These differences are probably because of genetics. Dense breasts have more glands and less fat than breasts that aren't dense.

One possible relationship between breast density and breast cancer could be because breast cancer is considered to be cancer of breast glands. So breasts that have more glands are more prone to developing breast cancer, possibly at a younger age.

Another link between breast density and breast cancer has to do with how breast cancers show up in a mammogram. Because breast cancers usually start in gland tissue, the cancer is considered dense. In a traditional mammogram, a tumor can look a lot like the gland tissue around it. So breast cancers can be harder to detect in a dense breast than in a less dense breast on a mammogram. This can result in a delay in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

What does all this mean if you have dense breasts? You can't change your genetics or the density of your breasts. But you can change the way you and your doctor screen and test for breast cancer.

  • If you're younger than 40, talk to your doctor about the possibility and value of starting mammogram screenings now.
  • No matter how old you are, talk to your doctor about screening and testing methods that may be better for women with dense breasts, including digital mammograms, computer-aided detection (CAD), ultrasound, and CAT and MRI scans.

It's also important to remember that breast cancer screening starts with breast self-exam. If you feel anything suspicious, trust what you feel. Talk to your doctor and get tested. If you're not sure, ask your doctor if your breasts are dense. Together you and your doctor can come up with a screening and testing plan that is the best for YOU.

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