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Breast density

Almost eight per cent of women have extremely high breast density which increases their cancer risk and can make it harder for health professionals to detect breast cancer on a screening mammogram.

Dense breasts have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue, such as more glands that make and drain milk, compared to breasts that aren’t dense.

Breast cancer is more likely to develop in women with dense breast tissue, but not many women know if they have dense breast tissue.

On a mammogram, breast density is shown as white and bright regions, but unfortunately potential tumours are also shown as white and bright on a mammogram.

With the screening technology currently available, it’s harder to see tumours in breasts with denser tissue on a mammogram and there is a danger that these women’s tumours may be missed at the time of screening.

As yet, no single method or tool for measuring breast density has been agreed upon within the medical and medical technology communities. However, it’s important to understand that breast density can’t be assessed based simply on how breasts feel during a self-exam or a doctor’s physical exam.

Dense breast tissue is a strong risk factor for breast cancer, however not all women with dense breasts will develop breast cancer.

What can women do now?

  • Mammography remains the gold standard for breast cancer screening. The researchers encourage women to use the opportunity to have free regular mammograms through BreastScreen services across Australia
  • Women can have their breast density assessed through a mammogram, which can be arranged through their GP
  • Supplementary screening methods, including ultrasound and MRI, are available for women to be used in addition to mammography. However, it is important that women consider the costs, both emotional and financial, and the risk of false positive results associated with these other technologies.
  • Be breast aware. All women, regardless of age, can be familiar with their breasts and check them regularly. Any changes should be reported to their doctor.

NBCF supports the INFORMD (Interest Forum on Mammographic Density) alliance of breast cancer researchers who believe that women with dense breasts should in the future be able to make informed decisions about how to manage their breast cancer risk. The researchers have identified these key actions required to achieve this aim:

  • Development of evidence-based guidelines for GPs and other health professionals so they can assist women to make informed decisions
  • Implementation of improved methods for quantifying breast density, and improved methods of predicting which women are most likely to develop breast cancer in the future. This is so breast density can be reported to all women attending screening programs, along with evidence-based recommendations for their management.

More information can be found at: INFORMD.org.au