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Having Dense Breasts Doesn’t Influence Breast Cancer Survival

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Dense breasts have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue compared to breasts that aren’t dense. Mammograms can help you and your doctor determine how dense your breasts are.

Research has shown that dense breasts:

  • can be 6 times more likely to develop cancer
  • can make it harder for mammograms to detect breast cancer; breast cancers (which look white like breast gland tissue) are easier to see on a mammogram when they’re surrounded by fatty tissue (which looks dark)

Other research suggests that if women with dense breasts are diagnosed with breast cancer, the cancer is likely to be more aggressive.

Now, a new study offers some reassuring news for women with dense breasts: women with dense breasts have the same breast cancer survival rates as women whose breasts aren’t dense.

The research was published online on Aug. 20, 2012 by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Read the abstract of “Relationship Between Mammographic Density and Breast Cancer Death in the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium.”

The researchers looked at the records of 9,232 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1996 and 2005 in the U.S. Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, a database supported by the National Cancer Institute. The records included information on the women’s breast density.

The women were followed for about 6.5 years. During that time, 1,795 of the women died, 889 of them from breast cancer.

Women who had dense breasts were no more likely to die from breast cancer than women who didn’t have dense breasts.

Women diagnosed with large or high-grade breast cancers and obese women with low density breasts were more likely to die from breast cancer.

The researchers pointed out that the risk factors for developing breast cancer may be very different from the factors that affect the risk of dying from breast cancer.

If you have dense breasts, this study should give you some peace of mind. If you don’t know whether you have dense breasts, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor what your mammograms suggest about your breast density and how breast density might affect your breast cancer risk.

If you have a higher risk of breast cancer because you have dense breasts, you and your doctor will develop a screening plan tailored to your unique situation. General recommended screening guidelines include:

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

Digital mammography is better than film mammography in women with dense breasts, regardless of age.

Your personal screening plan also may include the following tests to detect any cancer as early as possible:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the breast
  • ultrasound

Talk to your doctor about developing a specialized program for early detection that meets your individual needs and gives you peace of mind.

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