What is breast density and how does it affect cancer risk?
Breasts are made up of a mixture of fibrous glandular tissue and fatty tissue. Breasts are considered dense if they contain a majority of fibrous or glandular tissue but not much fat. Mammograms can be more difficult to interpret when the majority of the breast is fibrous, prompting the notification to alert women of this variant. Mammograms continue to be the only proven annual screening test for breast cancer.
Studies have shown that women with dense breasts have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. Additionally, mammography can be less accurate in women with dense breasts. This is because dense breast tissue and breast lumps – both benign and cancerous – appear white on mammography. This can make it more challenging for your radiologist to detect small, early cancers on your mammogram.
"At Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Center, our radiologists may recommend a woman with higher breast density receive tomosynthesis – or a 3D mammogram – for diagnostic measures," said Dr. Jennifer Rollenhagen, radiologist, Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Center.
3D mammography helps distinguish normal overlapping tissue from an underlying mass, and it can lead to a more accurate diagnosis. This type of mammography reduces the chances of screening patients having to come back for additional views. The radiation dose is the same as a traditional, 2D mammogram, however capturing both 2D and 3D images at the same time.
Insurance coverage for 3D mammography is variable as it is a new technology. Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Center has reduced the out-of-pocket charge for this imaging to $150 if the test is not covered by the insurer.
"3D mammography is an important addition to Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Centers' robust breast program," said Dr. Jamie Caughran, medical director and fellowship trained breast surgeon at the Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Center in Grand Rapids. "We can now assess a woman's individual risk for breast cancer in addition to her breast density level and make recommendations for future screening or treatment."
This service is provided by Mercy Health's dedicated breast nurse navigators and RiskPlus Program.
RiskPlus, only available in West Michigan at Mercy Health Comprehensive Breast Centers, is designed for patients identified as high risk or for those seeking to know if they're at high risk for getting breast cancer. Mercy Health's RiskPlus Program offers custom surveillance for those who want a watchful eye and a personalized prevention plan.
If you are curious about breast density, please talk to your doctor. Together, you can decide which, if any, additional screening exams are right for you. Even if you are at low risk, or have entirely fatty breasts, you should still get an annual mammogram starting at age 40. Screening mammography has been proven to save lives.