Study shows many women don’t know dangers of dense breast tissue

WASHINGTON — The majority of women do not know that having dense breast tissue can increase their risk for breast cancer, according to a study by the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Dense breast tissue refers to the appearance of breast tissue on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts have more dense tissue — breast (milk ducts) and fibrous tissues — than fatty tissue. It is a normal and common finding, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The UVA Center for Survey Research conducted a random phone survey of more than 1,000 Virginia women ages 35 to 70. The survey found that seven out of eight women did not know that having dense breast tissue can increase cancer risk.

Dense tissue means the cells are more active and have more turnover and more opportunities for cells to “make a mistake,” said Dr. Jennifer Harvey of UVA’s breast cancer program. Women are “more at an increased risk” if they have dense breast tissue, she said.

The study also found that four out of five women did not that know that having dense breast tissue reduces the effectiveness of a mammogram.

In a UVA podcast, Harvey said women with dense tissue should be aware of more advanced breast cancer screenings such as tomosynthesis, also known as a 3D mammography, or of getting an ultrasound of their breasts. “Either of those will give us a better opportunity to see breast cancer at an earlier stage,” she said.

Recently, she said, women have been hearing differing views on how often one should get a breast cancer screening. Women with dense breast tissue should get screened every year, she said. Harvey also suggests contacting the insurance company to see what types of breast cancer screenings are covered.

Virginia law requires health care providers to tell patients if they have dense breast tissue after they have been given a mammogram. That information is usually sent to the patient in a letter. Virginia is one of at least 27 states that are required to provide such notifications.

But that information does not mean a whole lot if the woman does not have a conversation with her health care provider, who can tell her what having dense breast tissue means and the possible impact on her health. That is why UVA researchers are stressing the importance of patients and health care providers having that conversation.

“Women need to know whether their breast density will make it harder to detect breast cancer so that, along with their health care team, they can consider other options for screening and detection,” said Wendy Cohn, the study’s co-author and an associate professor in UVA’s department of public health sciences.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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