Call us 24/7

Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-CTCA products or services.

Breast density becoming an important predictor of breast cancer risk

Breast density
Women who have dense breasts are four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with low breast density. Researchers are still trying to figure out why.

Many of us know that certain genetic factors can predict breast cancer risk. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are the most common inherited causes of the disease. But new research suggests breast density is an increasingly important predictor of a woman’s breast cancer risk.

Breast density compares the amount of fat to the amount of tissue on a mammogram. Dense breasts contain more glandular and fibrous tissue than fatty tissue. In general, younger women tend to have dense breasts, and breast density typically decreases as a woman gets older.

Women who have dense breasts are four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with low breast density. Researchers are still trying to figure out why. We know that dense breasts can make it more difficult to find breast cancer on a mammogram. Since both cancer and dense breast tissue look white or light gray on a mammogram, dense tissue may hide a tumor from view.

Digital mammography has been found to be more accurate than film mammography for women with dense breasts. Also, breast mammography, ultrasound and MRI are being studied to determine whether combining these tests will improve detection in women with dense breasts.

While dense breasts increase the risk of breast cancer, it is not clear if reducing breast density will decrease breast cancer risk. For example, getting older and gaining weight after menopause are both related to lower breast density, but are also related to an increase in breast cancer risk.

At this time, there are no screening guidelines specifically for women with dense breasts. The American College of Radiology's Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS®) measures breast density, but is not routinely reported or used to assess breast cancer risk.

With more research, individualized screening recommendations for breast cancer may replace current ones, and doctors may start using breast density to assess cancer risk. In the meantime, you can take charge of your health by asking questions and deciding what’s best for you. The Susan G. Komen® organization offers some questions to ask your doctor:

  • Do I have dense breasts? If so, how do you know?
  • What other things might affect the density of my breasts?
  • What screening tests should I get and how often should I have them?
  • If my family members have dense breasts, will I have dense breasts too?
  • What can I do to lower my risk of getting breast cancer?

Learn more about breast cancer risk factors.