A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Dense Breast Tissue Increases Your Risk for Cancer

Posted January 10, 2017

No surprise: all breasts are not created equal. However, what you may not know is that size and shape are not their only distinguishing characteristics. It seems breasts also vary in density. This is significant because, according to recent studies, women who have dense breast tissue are twice as likely to receive a cancer diagnosis. Plus, traditional mammography is less effective at spotting cancer in these women.

If you weren’t aware of this statistic, you’re not alone. According to a recent UVA School of Medicine study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, most women don’t know that having dense breast tissue increases their risk for cancer and reduces a mammogram’s ability to detect it.

A random phone survey of 1,024 Virginia women ages 35 to 70, conducted by the UVA Center for Survey Research, found that just 1 in 8 women were aware that breast density is a risk factor for breast cancer, while just 1 in 5 women knew that dense breasts reduced the sensitivity of mammograms to find tumors.

“It is important for women to know whether or not their own breast density is classified into one of the two high-density categories since this will increase their breast cancer risk,” says study co-author Wendy Cohn, PhD, an associate professor in UVA’s Department of Public Health Sciences. “Women need to know whether their breast density will make it harder to detect breast cancer so that, along with their healthcare team, they can consider other options for screening and detection.”

Virginia is among at least 27 states that require radiologists to tell women about their breast density, according to the study, and providing that information improves women’s understanding of how breast density may impact their health. 

All women receive a letter with the results of their mammogram. For women with dense breast tissue, the letter will include a separate paragraph discussing dense breasts. However, this survey revealed that the key to ensuring women know about breast density and its relationship to breast cancer, is to have a conversation.

“The most important thing that doctors and patients can take away from this study is that the required written notice about breast density isn’t enough in itself: patients need to talk with their providers about what breast density means for each woman’s individual breast cancer risk,” says Thomas Guterbock, a professor of sociology and director of the UVA Center for Survey Research.

Learn more about breast density and how it affects cancer risk in this UVA RadioMD podcast, featuring radiologist Jennifer A. Harvey, MD.