What Does It Mean to Have Dense Breasts?

A mammogram is an X-ray of your breasts. It’s one of the best ways to identify breast cancer early — in some cases, up to three years before a tumor could be detected in a physical exam — and early identification often makes treatment more effective.

Regular mammograms should become part of your health care plan as you get older, and the American Cancer Society recommends that most women have their first screening before age 45. But if you recently had a mammogram, you might be wondering what your results mean, especially if you’ve been told that you have dense breasts.

Nearly half of women who get mammograms have dense breast tissue, and there can be a lot of confusion around the diagnosis. How can you know if you have dense breasts? Does cup size affect breast density? Does having dense breasts increase your risk of breast cancer?

At The Women's Center, our team of specialists is here to help. We offer mammograms and comprehensive breast care for women of all ages, and it’s time to find out what it means to have dense breasts.

Your breast density diagnosis

When you get a mammogram screening, your radiologist reviews your X-ray images, looks for signs of breast cancer, and evaluates the presence of different types of tissue. 

Your breasts are made of three different types of tissue: glandular tissue, fibrous tissue, and fatty tissue. Glandular tissue creates and transports milk; fibrous tissue secures your breasts in place; and fatty tissue surrounds the other tissues.

Fatty tissue is not dense and appears dark and transparent on mammogram images. Supportive, fibrous tissue is dense, and it’s solid white on mammogram images. If you have more dense tissue than fatty tissue, you have dense breasts.

Roughly 1 in 10 women has extremely dense breasts, which means that nearly all of her breast tissue is dense. Heterogeneously dense breasts are more common, with 4 in 10 women having some areas of non-dense tissue among denser areas.

Another 4 in 10 have what’s known as fibroglandular density. These women have some areas of dense tissue, but most tissue is non-dense. Only about 1 in 10 women has almost entirely fatty breast tissue, with very little dense tissue at all.

The exact causes behind dense breast tissue aren’t well understood. A few factors that could increase your risk of breast density include:

While younger women and women with smaller breasts are more likely to have dense breast tissue, any woman can have dense breasts.

Dense breasts and your risk of breast cancer

Breast density matters because it affects your risk of breast cancer. Dense breasts can make it more difficult to identify breast cancer with mammogram screening.

Dense tissue appears white on X-ray images, which can mask tumors or potential signs of breast cancer in the images, because they also appear white. By contrast, non-dense tissue is transparent, and it can make unusual growth easier to identify.

Along with obscuring X-ray images, dense breasts may also increase your risk of developing breast cancer. The more dense tissue you have, the greater your risk of breast cancer. 

However, it’s important to know that having dense breasts doesn’t mean breast cancer is inevitable, and women with dense breasts are no more likely to die from breast cancer than women with non-dense breasts.

If you have dense breasts, talk to our team about your testing options. We may recommend other breast cancer screenings, like 3D mammograms, ultrasounds, or MRIs, depending on your health and other risk factors.

To learn more about mammograms and what your results mean, call our Hunter’s Creek location in Orlando, Florida, at 407-487-2167 or book an appointment online.

You Might Also Enjoy...

How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam

Breast cancer can’t be prevented, but there’s a lot you can do to protect your health. Preventive care increases the chance that cancer is identified in early stages — and some preventive care can happen at home. Learn about breast self-exams here.

Who Needs a DEXA Scan?

Are you at risk for osteoporosis? It’s a common bone disease, but it doesn’t have noticeable warning signs. Take a proactive approach to your health with a DEXA scan, a noninvasive screening to assess your bone density and your risk for osteoporosis.

Risk Factors for PCOS

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common causes of female infertility. It affects women of all ages, but the causes behind it are complex. Learn more about the risk factors for PCOS and what to do if you’re diagnosed with it.

When Might I Need Radiofrequency Ablation?

Lots of women dread the arrival of their periods. But if your period brings heavy bleeding and severe pain, you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms. Learn the signs of abnormal menstrual bleeding, and find out how radiofrequency ablation could help.

Why Do You Get Cranky During Your Period?

Do you suffer mood swings or irritability in the days leading up to and during your period? You’re not alone. These symptoms are common — but they have the power to interfere with your life. Learn the signs of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) here.

How Birth Control is More Convenient Than Ever

These days, you have a lot of options when it comes to birth control. Daily oral pills, weekly skin patches, and long-acting IUDs are just a few, and there’s an option that’s right for your lifestyle and your family planning goals.