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Health risks of dense breast tissue

Barrington  - Did you know that breast tissue can differ from person to person? And those differences may hide abnormalities and create the need for additional screenings to ensure your breast health, experts say.

What is dense breast tissue?
According to the American College of Radiology, breasts are made up of a mixture of fibrous and glandular and fatty tissue. Breasts are considered dense if there are a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue but not much fat.  Women with greater than 50 percent density are considered to have dense breast tissue. The density may decrease with age, but experts say there is little, if any, change in most women.

How do I find out if I have dense breasts?
A mammogram screening helps radiologists  determine your breast density. But even though mammograms are considered the most effective tool for detecting cancer in its earliest stages, dense breasts can make it more difficult to spot abnormalities.

Dr. Kevin Kirshenbaum, diagnostic radiologist on staff at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill., says sometimes patients with dense breast tissue may need additional testing along with their annual mammogram.

“The most recent focus on breast density as a risk factor for breast cancer, and the apparent rise of breast cancer incidence in a younger population brings into focus the option of having an additional screening test, namely a whole breast screening ultrasound,” Dr.  Kirshenbaum says.

Dr. Kirshenbaum explains that a screening using an ultrasound in patients with dense breasts allows some cancers to be seen where mammography may not.

“Another benefit is that there is no radiation risk with ultrasound, using similar technology as is used for maternal/fetal ultrasounds that are so commonly used,” he says.

If your mammogram shows you have dense breasts, Dr. Kirshenbaum recommends you talk to your physician about the best options for screening.

“Together, you can decide if any additional screening exams are right for you,” he says. “Taking preventive steps to ensure you are healthy is always the right thing to do.”

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends women get regular clinical breast exams at least every three years starting at age 20, in addition to  monthly self-breast exams. The ACS also recommends annual screening mammograms starting at age 40.

“Early detection of breast cancer is vital but if you have dense breast tissue, we want to be even more thorough in our examinations and vigilant with our testing,” Dr. Kirshenbaum says.


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