Why It's Important to Know If You Have Dense Breasts

This Q&A answers common questions about breast density and breast cancer screenings.

No two breasts are identical, even on the same woman. They come in different sizes, different shapes and even different density. You can't tell a breast's density by looking at it or feeling it, but it's completely normal to have dense breasts. If you do have dense breast tissue, here's what you need to know about breast cancer screenings.

Q: What are dense breasts?

A: All breasts are comprised of milk-producing glands, fibrous tissue and fat. If your breasts are mostly glands and fibrous tissue, they're considered to be dense. If they're mostly fat, they're considered to be non-dense. About 10% of women have extremely dense breasts and another 10% have non-dense breasts. The other 80% fall somewhere in between.

Q: Why are dense breasts a challenge when it comes to mammography?

A: Non-dense areas in the breasts appear dark and transparent on mammogram images. Areas of concern – such as noncancerous lesions or masses due to breast cancer – show up as white. Because dense breast tissue blocks x-rays, it also appears white on scans. This makes it difficult for radiologists to determine if white areas are normal breast tissue or if they require further evaluation.

Q: What happens if my mammogram can't be read accurately?

A: If a radiologist spots any areas of concern on your scan, or if they're unable to distinguish between normal dense breast tissue and a mass, they'll report the findings to your doctor or advanced practice provider who will likely order follow-up tests. These may include a breast MRI or breast ultrasound, both of which are offered at Sidney Health Center. If there is still concern after these other tests are completed, a biopsy may be suggested.

Q: When should I get mammograms if I have dense breasts?

A: Sidney Health Center follows the American College of Radiology recommendation that starting at age 40 women should have annual screening mammograms. If you are at an increased risk of breast cancer, you may need to be screened earlier or more often than the recommendations.

Dense breasts may slightly increase your risk of breast cancer, although it is not exactly known why, so it's best to talk to your doctor or advanced practice provider about when to begin yearly screenings. Whether you have dense or non-dense breasts, maintain a yearly screening schedule and follow up with additional tests if recommended by your healthcare provider.

The Sidney Health Center mammography team offers mammography services five days a week and extended hours on Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday starting at 7:30 AM. If you are 40 years or older, you can schedule a screening mammogram without a referral by calling the Sidney Health Center outpatient coordinator at 406-488-2195.

Sidney Health Center is American College of Radiology (ACR) accredited in Mammography, Breast MRI and Breast Ultrasound. To learn more about the Breast Health Imaging Services offered at Sidney Health Center, visit our website at http://www.SidneyHealth.org.

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