Why knowing your breast tissue density could help you prevent cancer

How well do you know your breasts?

Seeing pink a lot more lately? October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. And it’s pretty important to be aware: the American Cancer Society estimates that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in the United States in 2018.

Although doctors are not sure what the exact cause of breast cancer is, some factors can increase the risk of developing cancer. These risk factors include: having a personal or family history of breast cancer, unhealthy lifestyle choices such as drinking too much alcohol, being overly sedentary, being overweight or obese, and starting menstruation before age 12.

Another common risk factor that many women don’t know about? Dense breast tissue. Dense breasts are defined as having relatively high amounts of glandular tissue and fibrous connective tissue and relatively low amounts of fatty breast tissue. In fact, women with dense breasts can be six times more likely to develop cancer.

But how do you know if you have dense breast tissue? Well, breast density is often inherited, but other factors can influence it too. It’s also fairly common, nearly half of all women age 40 and older who get mammograms have dense breasts. To find out if your breast tissue is of high density, you have to get a mammogram. It cannot be felt in a clinical breast exam or a breast self-exam.

If you discover that you do have high breast density, your doctor may recommend additional regular screenings, including MRI scanning and ultrasounds. Additionally, having dense breasts can make it harder for mammograms to detect breast cancer, so women with dense breasts may be called back for follow-up tests more often than women with fatty breasts.

Remember, your chances of developing breast cancer are dependent on both risk factors and protective factors. There are some lifestyle choices you can make to help lower your breast cancer risk. These include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and having a healthy and balanced diet.

Women should also get annual mammograms and perform self-exams on their breasts at least once a month. Ask your doctor when you should start getting annual mammograms, and also for tips on performing your at-home exam. The key to cancer prevention is early detection, so make sure you know what screening regimen is right for you.

To read more stories and advice about breast cancer, visit www.wgme.com/features/breast-cancer-care.