Every woman’s breast composition is unique.
There’s fat, glands, and fibrous tissue. Breasts that have more than half glands and fibrous tissue are called dense breasts.
As of October 2018, women in BC are now being notified of their breast density on their mammogram results letter. But there is confusion over how that information should be used.
This is because historically, doctors haven’t been instructed to actually tell women their density, and many don't even know the risks.
TWO MAIN HEALTH RISKS OF DENSE BREASTS
Dense breasts increase the risk of breast cancer. Dense breasts are a more significant risk factor than family history.
Quick fact: Cancer is four to six times more common in women with the highest density, compared to women with the lowest density, but researchers don't know why.
Dense breasts also create a masking effect. On mammograms, dense tissue appears white, but so does cancer.
Quick fact: Studies show mammograms are 97% accurate with fatty breasts. The accuracy drops to about 50% accuracy for women in the highest density level.
It’s like finding a snowball in a snowstorm.” - Dr. Paula Gordon, Medical Director of the Sadie Diamond Breast Program at BC Women's Hospital
In BC, 43% of women screened have the dense breasts. That’s almost half of women who were being left in the dark... until now. It’s like not being told you have high blood pressure.
So, while it is normal to have dense breasts, women then need to know what to do next.
Things like: being vigilant about self-examinations, adjusting lifestyle factors like diet and exercise, and most importantly, deciding whether to seek additional screening, like an ultrasound.
Ultrasounds can spot what mammograms can’t. Dense tissue still appears white, but cancer appears black. This difference in colour makes all the difference. It is integral for early detection of breast cancer.
Dr. Paula Gordon, Medical Director of the Sadie Diamond Breast Program at BC Women's Hospital, says doing ultrasounds on women with dense breasts doubles the detection rate over mammography.
If you have dense breasts, and plan to have additional ultrasounds, I recommend that they alternate with your mammograms, instead of having them at the same time. That way you’ll be screened more often, and it will increase the opportunity to find cancer as early as possible.” - Dr. Paula Gordon. Here are some other tips.
This is progress...
… progress that’s been made by women who demanded the right to information about their own health; progress thanks to advocates like Michelle Di Tomaso, co-founder of Dense Breasts Canada and CTV Vancouver’s, Mi Jung Lee.
Watch their interview on CTV here:
We’ve already seen a ripple effect, since BC made this announcement in October. We’re now advocating for the other provinces to follow suit.
But the big task right here in our province will be continuing to educate doctors, the public, and most importantly, women. Ask friends, family, and colleagues if they’ve heard about breast density. If not, tell them why it’s important.
If not, tell them why it's important. Here are some things you might mention:
Dense breasts are not the same as lumpy breasts. Breast density can only be determined by a mammogram, not by look or feel of your breasts.
Screening saves lives. Even if you do not have dense breasts, the recommendation across the board is annual mammograms from age 40 onwards.
Just find out. If you are not due for another mammogram for a while, you can request past results letters. They’ll now list your density.
Early detection is key. In most cases, when extra screening is done, women are not found to have breast cancer.
Knowledge is power. You can read more faq’s here.
In a sense, a few months after this major step forward, the work has just begun.
Join the conversation. Follow @densebreastscdn.
Thumbnail illustration by @pink_bits.