October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the time of year I get my mammogram. As many of you may know, some states have recently passed notification laws that let patients know if they have dense breasts. My tests results were negative, but I was informed that I fall into the 50% of ‘Dense’ women.
When I got the letter, I was concerned and looked up information about the condition. The words ‘High Risk for Cancer’ kept coming up, which really freaked me out. No one in my immediate family has had breast cancer, though all four of my grandparents have had other forms of it. It was impossible to find the statistics I wanted, but that’s what prompted me to blog about this, so anyone else who learns they’re dense can get the facts instead of an anxiety attack.
There are four grades of breast density (3 & 4 are considered ‘dense’):
1) the breast is mostly fatty tissue (10% of all women)
2) a few scattered dense areas, 25-50% glandular (40% of all women)
3) heterogeneously dense, 51-75% glandular tissue (40% of all women, me included)
4) extremely dense, more than 75% glandular (10% of all women)
Most women start out with dense breasts, which decrease with age. That’s why mammograms aren’t usually recommended for women under 40. The dense areas show up as white on the mammogram, but since any possible cancer would also show up in white, density could make it hard to detect.
I’m a grade 3. I called the breast center where I was tested, and the nurse was very helpful. Mine were done digitally, and after too much webformation and google searches, I knew that was much better than the films, but I wanted to know if I needed further testing, which would be a breast ultrasound or MRI. She discussed my background information, answered my questions, and encouraged me to call my OB/GYN to find see if he recommended further testing.
My doctor’s office said he’d order the tests if I wanted, for peace of mind, but that they weren’t really needed. I explained to the nurse there that I was confused about the condition and wanted to know if being dense meant I’d probably get cancer. Is there a 50/50 chance? How worried, exactly, should I be? I was so lucky to talk to her. 🙂 She explained that every other person that goes thru the office get notified that they’re dense, so it’s an extremely common thing. After assuring me that their office never described dense breast as a high risk in and of itself, she told me she totally understood my concerns, and that she had a family history. She explained more about the way the radiologist examines the mammogram and such. When I told her that I didn’t guess I needed an ultrasound, she said that if I changed my mind or kept worrying down the road, to just give her a call and she’d set up the test.
Every Dense woman should make her own decisions about whether or not she needs further screening even after getting a clean mammogram, taking into consideration her risk factors, family history, etc. Knowing if you’re dense is a valuable tool, in my opinion. I will most likely get an ultrasound a few years from now, just to be safe, sooner if I have any indication that I need it. Honestly, had I been a 4 or had a family history of breast cancer, I would’ve gone for further testing now, since that level of density would make abnormalities very hard to detect on a mammogram alone.
As for statistics, here are the best I’ve found on the subject, and they put my mind at ease:
‘When risk is expressed relative to average breast density, the risk for the 40 percent of women with heterogeneously dense breasts is about 1.2 times greater than average and the risk for the 10 percent of women with extremely dense breasts is about 2.1times greater than average. Therefore, breast density is a risk factor, but not a strong one.’
(Quote from MedicalXpress website)
By the way, if you are tested in a state without the notification law, all you have to do is ask your doctor or radiologist if you have dense breasts and what grade of density your tests showed. I personally think this is information all women should know.
So, are you dense too?