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Dense breast tissue has an up to four times higher risk of developing breast cancer. However, a new study has shown that many women are unaware of the risks of breast density.
Dense breasts refer to breasts made up of more fibrous and glandular tissue than fatty tissue, and can be detected during a mammogram.
The study, which was published in Jama Network Open on January 23, surveyed 1,858 women aged 40 to 76 from 2019 to 2020 who had recently had a mammogram, had no history of breast cancer, and had heard talk about breast density.
It assessed women’s understanding of breast density as an important risk for breast cancer against other well-known risk factors, such as having a parent with breast cancer, being overweight or obese, drinking more than one alcoholic drink a day, never have children and have a prior breast biopsy.
Although breast density is associated with a 1.2 to four times higher risk of developing breast cancer, according to the study, few women perceived breast density as an important personal risk factor. Instead, 93% of women considered family history to pose the greatest risk, followed by 65% of women who said being overweight or obese was a higher risk than breast density.
Of the 61 women surveyed, only six described breast density as contributing to breast cancer risk. However, most women correctly noted that breast density could make mammograms harder to read.
When asked what they could do to reduce their risk of breast cancer, about a third of women said they were unsure whether it was possible to reduce their risk of breast cancer or that they did not know what action they could take.
However, there are many steps people can take to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. A breast screening, also known as a mammogram, is an x-ray image of the breast used to check for breast cancer in women. A mammogram can detect otherwise invisible signs or symptoms of breast cancer that cannot be felt, or can look for breast cancer after a lump or other signs of breast cancer are detected.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 45 and 54 have a mammogram every year. Women between the ages of 40 and 44 also have the option of starting early screening, and those 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every two years if they wish.
According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly half of all women 40 and older who have mammograms have dense breasts. Breast density is often hereditary, but it can also be seen in women who are younger, on hormone replacement therapy, or have a lower body weight.
While breast density can make it harder to interpret a mammogram, a new type of mammogram called digital breast tomosynthesis — or 3D mammography — has recently been found to be more helpful in women with dense breasts.
Other studies have shown that imaging tests like ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help detect certain breast cancers that cannot be seen on mammograms. Experts have yet to strongly suggest that women with dense breasts should benefit from additional screening, according to the Breast Cancer Screening Recommendation Statement by the US Preventive Services Task Force.
People who have dense breasts should talk to their healthcare provider about their personal risk of developing breast cancer.