What Should I Know About Dense Breasts?
1. Are dense breasts common? Is it unusual to have dense breasts?
Why do dense breasts matter?
Dense breasts matter because dense tissue can hide cancer on a mammogram. Dense breasts also increase the risk of developing breast cancer. If you have dense breasts, you may need another test in addition to your mammogram to find cancer (if present).
For more information, see “Dense Breasts: 5 Facts You Should Know”
2. Is breast size related to breast density?
3. Is breast pain or breast tenderness related to dense breast tissue?
No. Breast pain or tenderness is not related to breast density. Breast pain that comes and goes is often because of changes in hormones due to your period and is most common on the sides of your breasts (near your arms and underarms).
Benign (not cancerous) cysts, lymph nodes, and other non-cancerous growths in your breasts may cause tenderness. Skin conditions, such as shingles, and muscle soreness, can feel like breast pain.
Does breast pain mean that I have cancer?
No, breast pain alone is rarely due to cancer. If you have a painful lump or a point of pain (that you can point to with one fingertip) that lasts several weeks, you should talk with your health care provider about having additional tests.
For more information, see Q+A, “Why does breast density matter on my mammogram?”
4. I have been told my breasts are dense. How do I find out what category they are in?
In the U.S.A., the radiologist (the doctor who looks at your mammogram) will send a report to your health care provider after your mammogram. Your breast density category (fatty, scattered density, heterogeneously dense or extremely dense) is usually in that report. Your density category may also be in the letter you receive after your mammogram. If not, you can call either the radiologist or your health care provider to find out your density. Each state has different laws about the information you must be given about your breast density. To learn what the law is in your state, click here.
In Europe, the facility that does your mammogram may either have this information or allow you to request it. Density Request forms are available for the UK – England/Wales; Scotland; Northern Ireland; Republic of Ireland here.
5. Will my breasts always be dense?
- Breasts tend to become less dense with age and menopause (see Figure below), but not always.
- Breasts become more dense (denser) during pregnancy and breast feeding. This is because the glands that make milk grow and the glands themselves are part of dense breast tissue. Breast density returns to what it was before pregnancy about 2-3 months after you stop breast feeding.
- If you lose a lot of weight, your breasts may appear denser on a mammogram because there is less fat, but the amount of dense tissue stays the same.
Breasts Can Become Less Dense with Age and Menopause
Left Image: A screening mammogram image of a premenopausal woman (age 49) shows heterogeneously dense breast tissue (Category C).
Right Image: A screening mammogram image of the same woman, now postmenopausal (age 52). Her breasts are less dense and now show scattered fibroglandular density (Category B).
- 5 Facts Every Woman Should Know
- Video Series: Let’s Talk About Dense Breasts
- Patient Risk Checklist (print)
- Patient Questions and Answers
6. Do I need to know my breast density before I begin getting mammograms?
No. You would not know your breast density until you start having mammograms. In the U.S.A., most medical societies recommend that women at average risk for developing breast cancer begin mammograms at age 40. European guidelines on when to begin getting a mammogram vary by country (click here for information by country).
If you have a family history of breast cancer or are found to have dense breasts, talk to your health care provider about your risk factors and about which breast cancer screening plan is right for you.
7. If I don’t have dense breasts, what should I do?
In the U.S.A., if you are age 40 or over, at average risk of developing breast cancer, and in good health, most medical societies recommend a mammogram every year (with 3D mammography/tomosynthesis, if available). If your health care provider determines that you are at high risk of getting breast cancer, a yearly MRI may be recommended to begin by age 25 to 30, with yearly mammograms beginning at age 30.
European breast cancer screening guidelines vary by country; for specific information by country, click here.