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Breast Density: What It Means to You

Breast Density: What It Means to You

This article is for people who will be having a breast exam or screening, or their care partners, or anyone who wants to learn about breast density. The goal of this activity is to educate patients on the importance of speaking with their doctor about their breast density.

You will learn about:

  • What breast density is

  • What causes dense breasts

  • How to know if you have dense breasts

  • Why your breast density matters

  • What to do if you have dense breasts

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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What Is Breast Density?

Breasts are made up of different kinds of tissue, such as fat, glands, and fibrous connective tissue.

Breast density describes the different amounts of these tissues. Your breasts are dense if you have a lot of glandular or connective tissue (dense tissue) compared to not much fat tissue (non-dense tissue).

Having dense breast tissue is common, and breast density is different for everyone. You can have dense breast tissue at any age. But for most women, their breasts become less dense as they get older. In other women, there may be little change over time.

What Causes Dense Breasts?

It's not clear exactly why some women have a lot of dense breast tissue while others don't.

Breast density can be affected by:

  • Age. Young women often have denser breasts

  • Body mass index (BMI). Women with less body fat -- a lower BMI -- can have more dense breast tissue

  • Genetics. Breast density can be inherited, so you have a greater chance of having dense breasts if a close family member does

  • Breastfeeding. Nursing can make breasts more dense

  • Hormones. Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy for menopause can make breasts more dense

  • Menopause. Your breasts can become more fatty and less dense after menopause

How to Know if You Have Dense Breasts

Breast density has nothing to do with how your breasts feel or their size. Dense breast tissue cannot be felt by a doctor during a breast exam or during a breast self-exam.

Breast density is seen on a mammogram. A doctor -- a radiologist -- will review your mammogram to look for cancer and can also see how much dense and non-dense breast tissue you have. This will determine your breast density.

While many breast cancers can be seen on a mammogram, sometimes cancer is more difficult to see in dense breast tissue.

Why Knowing Your Breast Density Matters

Knowing your breast density is important for your health. It helps you and your doctor make decisions about your care and what breast screenings are right for you.

Women with denser breast tissue have a higher chance of getting breast cancer than women with less dense breast tissue. It is not known exactly why having dense breasts is a greater risk factor for breast cancer.

Dense breast tissue may also make it harder to see breast cancer on a mammogram.

Be sure to discuss your breast density with your doctor and what tests and screenings you should have.

What to Do if You Have Dense Breasts

Breast density isn't something you can control. You don't need to treat it, and it may change over time.

But if your mammogram shows you have dense breasts, your doctor may recommend another kind of breast cancer screening that will give a different view of your breast tissue.

These may include:

  • Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to make images

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that uses radio waves to make images

  • 3-D mammogram (digital breast tomosynthesis) that takes a 3-D image

  • Molecular breast imaging (MBI) -- or breast-specific gamma imaging -- that uses a special dye and camera to make images

Making a Plan With Your Doctor

To catch breast cancer early, all women -- no matter what their breast density is -- should do a monthly breast self-exam and see their doctor every year for a breast exam.

Talk to your doctor about when you should start getting mammograms. Many women start when they turn 40, but everyone is different and your doctor can talk about when is right for you.

Even if you have a normal mammogram, you should know how your breasts look and feel. Anytime there's a change, contact your doctor right away.

Tips for Good Breast Health

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for your breast health and your overall health.

Ways to do this include:

  • Do monthly breast self-exams

  • See your doctor every year for a breast exam

  • Quit smoking

  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables

  • Limit alcohol

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Stay physically active

  • Get enough sleep -- 7 to 8 hours each night

  • Develop strategies to relax and reduce stress

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

When you visit your doctor be sure to ask about your breast density and how it might affect your breast cancer screening.

Questions you can ask your doctor include:

  • What is my breast density and how does it affect my health?

  • When and how often should I get a mammogram?

  • Are there other breast screenings I should have?

  • How do I do a breast self-exam?

  • What's my risk for breast cancer?

  • Are there changes I should make to my lifestyle?

  • What type of diet should I eat?

  • What type of exercise should I do?

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Congratulations! You have successfully completed the program Breast Density: What It Means to You

View Additional Materials View additional materials on this topic that you may find useful

What Does It Mean to Have Dense Breasts?

Dense Breasts: Answers to Commonly Asked Questions

Breast Density and Your Mammogram Report

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Director, Learning & Development, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Senior Scientific Content Manager, Medscape, LLC

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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