Since the past three decades, scientists and doctors have been looking at a correlation between dense breast and breast cancer. Various studies have concluded that women who have dense breasts are four to six times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not have dense breasts.
Since dense breast is related to breast cancer, it is very important for every woman to learn what dense breasts are, what precautions they should take, and lifestyle changes they should follow, if they have dense breasts.
What is Dense Breast?
The term dense breast is used to describe breast that has a higher density of connective, glandular, and breast tissue than fat. The glandular tissue consists of milk ducts, which are the production and travel mediums for the milk. On the other hand, low density breasts have higher density of fatty tissue than breast, glandular, and connective tissue.
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Easily Seen on Mammogram
A mammogram can clearly distinguish between a dense breast and low density breast. In a mammogram milk ducts, breast tissue, and connective tissue appear white, because they are hard. The fatty tissue in the breast is shown as grey in a mammogram. Thus, in a mammogram, dense breast has more white than grey area. On the other hand, the mammogram image of a low density breast will have more grey area than white.
Size and Density
One of the important factors to understand about dense breasts is that it is not associated with size. Breast density cannot be determined through a physical examination. Doctors usually see the mammogram images to determine whether a woman has dense breasts or low density breasts.
Causes of Breast Density
Studies have shown that breast density is inherited. If your mother has dense breasts, chances are that you will also have dense breasts. It has also been noted that high breast density is more prevalent in certain ethnic groups than in others. Asian women tend to have denser breasts than women of other ethnicity.
Density Decreases with Age
Women in their thirties are more likely to have dense breasts than women in their 50s and 60s. Density of breasts usually decreases with age. Older women do not need milk ducts, so they are gradually replaced by fatty tissue. However, this is not the case with every woman.
Age, Breast Density and Risk
Studies have shown that women in their 30s who have dense breasts are at low risk of developing breast cancer, provided that they are not associated with any other breast cancer risk factors. However, women in their 50s and 60s who have dense breasts are at great risk for breast cancer.
Cause for Worry
You might ask why I should be worried, if I have dense breasts. There are several reasons why dense breasts are a cause of concern. Firstly, various studies have positively linked breast cancer to dense breasts. The worrisome part is that doctors are still not sure as to what degree breast cancer risk is associated with dense breast. Moreover, at this point they are also not sure why dense breasts increase the risk for breast cancer.
Dense Breasts Mask Cancer
Another reason to worry about dense breasts is that they make it hard for doctors to detect breast cancer. The problem is that tumors also appear white in color in mammogram images. Therefore, in dense breast it becomes very hard for doctors to spot a tumor in mammograms. It is like looking for a white mouse in a snowfield.
There have been many cases in which mammograms have not been able to spot tumors in women with dense breasts. In such cases breast cancer was often detected at very late stage.
What Should You Do If You Have Dense Breasts
Women with dense breast should ask their doctors to develop a screening schedule or plan for them. This will ensure that in case they develop breast cancer, it is detected at an early stage. Those who do not know whether they have dense breast or not, should first have their mammograms done. After the mammogram, make sure you ask your doctor about your breast density.
If you have dense breasts, you doctor will most likely advice you to go for a digital mammogram. It has been noted that digital mammography is better at detecting tumors in dense breasts than film mammography. In digital mammography, the image is produced on a computer screen. This allows doctors to magnify or enlarge the image and view it from a close range. Obviously this allows doctors to distinguish between breast and connective tissue and tumor, all three of which appear white in mammogram images.
Your screening plan, which your doctor has planned for you, will advise you to go for a digital mammogram scan on a yearly basis. Women above the age of 40 are especially advised for a yearly digital mammogram scan.
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MRI and Ultrasound Scan
Women with dense breasts are often advised to follow their digital mammogram scan with MRI and ultrasound scans. Your screening plan will include this advice.
One point to note here is that not every center is able to do an ultrasound or MRI scan. Furthermore, your health insurance plan might not pay for scans that are done for screening reasons. Check with your insurance provider before you schedule an appointment for these scans. Though these scans are expensive, it does not mean that you should not go for them.
Physical Check Up
The importance of doing self-examination can never be overstressed. Make sure that you physically examine your breasts every month. Your doctor will teach you how to do self-examination of your breasts, if you do not know how to do this. Besides a monthly self-examination, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor for a complete physical examination on a yearly basis.
Keep a Record of Your Scans
Make sure that you save all your scan images. When you go for your yearly digital mammogram, MRI and/or ultrasound scan, you should take your previous scans with you. This will help the doctor compare your recent scans with the older ones and note any change in your breasts, if and when they occur.
Making Lifestyle Changes
If you have dense breasts, it is important that you make certain changes in your lifestyle right away. This is especially important for women have dense breasts and also have a family history of breast cancer. If you smoke, then you should quit smoking right away. Women with dense breasts should never smoke, because it increases their chances of developing breast cancer in the future.
Another lifestyle change that they need to make is to limit their alcohol intake. Women with dense breasts are also advised by their doctors to eat healthy food. Intake of sodas, fast food, oily food, and caffeine tend to increase the risk for breast cancer.
Besides eating healthy, you should also exercise on a regular basis. Eating healthy food and exercising will ensure that you are neither overweight nor underweight. With regular scanning and a healthy lifestyle you can cut down the risks for breast cancer. Moreover, learning more about dense breasts will help you stay alert and in control of your health.
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