Text size:

Technology Dispells Beliefs of Increased Cancer Risks in Dense Breasts

Mary Hayes, MD

By: Mary Hayes, MD
Medical Director, Women's Imaging, Memorial Healthcare System

The topic of dense breasts made a few headlines recently when the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published that breast cancer patients with dense breasts are no more at risk of dying from breast cancer than patients with fatty breasts. Such development had our experts also fielding questions about mammography and detection for women with dense breasts and fatty breasts.

What is the difference between dense breast and fatty breasts? Breast deemed "dense" are made up primarily of fibrous or glandular tissue, but not much fat. It is more difficult to detect breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue, as both look "white" on a mammogram. Fatty breasts consist of more fat than glandular tissue. Breast cancer in a fatty breast is easier to diagnose via mammography.

The published study followed breast cancer patients after they were diagnosed. Once health factors and tumor characteristics were factored in, researchers found that high mammographic density was not associated with increased risk of death from breast cancer or other causes. The study, conducted by Gretchen L. Gierach, PhD, MPH, and colleagues of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology Genetics at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., reviewed data from the U.S. Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium and examinations of 9,232 women who experienced invasive breast cancer between 1996-2005. At 6.6 years, there were 1,796 deaths reported, 889 from breast cancer and the rest from other causes.

Mammography remains the standard for detecting breast cancer

Breast cancer is harder to detect in women with dense tissue because it can obscure breast tumors or other high risk lesions on a mammogram. Now, women can have access to supplementary tools and advanced technologies, such as tomosynthesis, new 3-D digital mammography imaging that provides breast radiologists a clearer, more detailed view of breast tissue. In addition, women with dense breasts may be screened with supplemental ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The challenge is to detect tumors at the earliest stage. The cancers found in women with dense tissue are not more aggressive or more difficult to treat than in women with fatty breast tissue. Women can decrease their risk of breast cancer by maintaining healthy weight and exercising. Breast health includes getting annual mammograms, physical exams and informing healthcare providers about personal and family medical history.

Memorial Regional Hospital was the first hospital in the state offer breast tomosynthesis 3-D digital mammography imaging. The screening is now available at Memorial Regional Hospital and Memorial Hospital Miramar. To find out more, visit memorialcancerinstitute.com.

Memorial Healthcare System's Women's Imaging Services are located at Memorial Regional Hospital, Memorial Regional Hospital South, Memorial Hospital West and Memorial Hospital Miramar.

Source: Gretchen L. Gierach, Relationship Between Mammographic Density and Breast Cancer Death in the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2012) 104(16): 1218-1227 first published online August 21, 2012 doi:10.1093/jnci/djs327