Does Having Dense Breasts Affect My Cancer Risk?

And 7 Oth­er Mam­mo­gram Questions

The chang­ing of the sea­sons, year­ly anniver­saries, and your favorite hol­i­days are all impor­tant parts of each pass­ing year. But if you are a woman between the ages of 40 and 54, you may also keep track of pass­ing time with your annu­al mammogram. 

Source: Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Prevention 

Get­ting your annu­al mam­mo­gram is a cru­cial part of your pre­ven­ta­tive health rou­tine, and it can help you and your doc­tor mon­i­tor any changes in your breasts over time.

Whether you’re get­ting ready for your first or tenth mam­mo­gram, you may be sur­prised by some of the answers to these com­mon mam­mo­gram questions. 

1. When should I get my first mammogram? 

You should get your first mam­mo­gram at age 40. It’s impor­tant to start get­ting mam­mo­grams in your ear­ly 40s because near­ly 17% of breast can­cers hap­pen in women between the ages of 40 and 49. Once you’ve got­ten your first mam­mo­gram, you should con­tin­ue get­ting one every year.

Is it time for your first or annu­al mam­mo­gram? Sched­ule your annu­al mam­mo­gram appoint­ment online or by call­ing 1−630−545−7880.

2. Are mam­mo­grams painful? 

Many peo­ple describe get­ting a mam­mo­gram as uncom­fort­able, but it is not nec­es­sar­i­ly painful. What a mam­mo­gram feels like can depend on a range of fac­tors, includ­ing the size of your breasts or how sen­si­tive your breasts are that day. While the press­ing and stretch­ing of your breasts may be uncom­fort­able, a mam­mo­gram only lasts about 20 min­utes, with the com­pres­sion dis­com­fort only last­ing a few seconds.

3. What should I do to pre­pare for a mammogram? 

Unlike oth­er rou­tine can­cer screen­ings (like a colonoscopy) you don’t have to make any changes to your eat­ing or drink­ing habits before a mammogram. 

On the day of your mam­mo­gram, you sim­ply need to avoid wearing: 

  • Deodor­ant or antiperspirant 
  • Per­fume
  • Lotion

All these sub­stances can show up as white spots on your mam­mo­gram. Because a mam­mo­gram requires you to undress from the waist up, you may also want to avoid wear­ing a dress. By wear­ing a shirt and pants/​skirt, you can eas­i­ly undress for your imaging.

4. What kinds of things will I learn from a mammogram? 

After your mam­mo­gram, you will typ­i­cal­ly receive your results from Duly in about 24 – 48 hours, how­ev­er, some­times it can take a lit­tle longer. Dur­ing that time, a radi­ol­o­gist will review the images of your breast, and look for ear­ly signs of can­cer that can take the form of:

  • Mass­es (abnor­mal­ly shaped sec­tions of breast tissue)
  • Cal­ci­fi­ca­tions (small white spots made of calcium)
  • Asym­me­tries (areas in your breast tis­sue pat­tern that look dif­fer­ent from the remain­ing breast)

Your mam­mo­gram can also tell you the den­si­ty of your breasts (some­thing you can’t deter­mine on your own). Start­ing Sep­tem­ber 10, 2024, all mam­mo­gram reports in the Unit­ed States must dis­close your breast den­si­ty. Illi­nois law to noti­fy women of their breast den­si­ty in mam­mo­gram results went into effect on Jan­u­ary 1, 2019.

5. What does it mean if I have dense breasts? 

Your breasts are made up of dif­fer­ent kinds of tis­sues, and your breast den­si­ty is deter­mined by the dis­tri­b­u­tion of these tis­sues. If you have dense breasts, it means that you have rel­a­tive­ly more fibrous and glan­du­lar tis­sue than fat­ty tissue. 

Dense breasts are fair­ly com­mon, with approx­i­mate­ly 50% of women who are 40 years old or old­er with dense or very dense breasts. The den­si­ty of your breasts can change also as you age, becom­ing less dense as you get older. 

6. Does hav­ing dense breasts affect my can­cer risk?

Despite how com­mon it is to have dense breasts; many women do not real­ize breast den­si­ty is an inde­pen­dent risk fac­tor for breast can­cer. Med­ical experts are not entire­ly sure why this is, but one the­o­ry is that dense breast tis­sue con­tains more cells — mean­ing there are sim­ply more cells that have the poten­tial to become abnor­mal and devel­op into cancer.

Even if you have dense breasts, a mam­mo­gram can still detect many signs of breast can­cer, but it may be lim­it­ed. There are sup­ple­men­tal screen­ing options for those with dense breasts, includ­ing breast ultra­sound, to detect signs of breast can­cer that may be hid­den by dense tis­sue on a mammogram. 

7. What is a screen­ing breast ultrasound?

Breast ultra­sound is a tech­nique that uses high-fre­quen­cy sound waves to form an image of breast tis­sue. No radi­a­tion is used to form the images. In screen­ing breast ultra­sound, both whole breasts are imaged to find can­cers that may not be seen on screen­ing mam­mo­grams. A scan of the under­arms is also includ­ed in the exam­i­na­tion. Can­cers are usu­al­ly seen as dark­er and/​or irreg­u­lar areas com­pared to the sur­round­ing tis­sue. Screen­ing ultra­sound can ben­e­fit women with an aver­age risk of breast can­cer with dense breasts.

It is impor­tant to note that screen­ing breast ultra­sound alone is not suf­fi­cient to screen for breast can­cer as it can­not detect tiny cal­ci­fi­ca­tions which can be a sign of ear­ly breast can­cer. Cal­ci­fi­ca­tions are best seen- and often­times only seen– on mam­mo­grams. There­fore, if you decide to get a screen­ing ultra­sound, it should be in com­bi­na­tion with a screen­ing mam­mo­gram (at the same time or with­in 6 months). 

8. What does it mean if I get called back after a mammogram? 

After your mam­mo­gram, your provider may call you back into the office for fur­ther imag­ing — espe­cial­ly if you’ve just had your first mam­mo­gram or if you have dense breast tis­sue. When your provider does not have a pre­vi­ous mam­mo­gram to com­pare your results to, a fol­low-up mam­mo­gram can be helpful.

A call-back mam­mo­gram should not be an imme­di­ate cause for con­cern, so don’t pan­ic. If your provider calls you back, it sim­ply means addi­tion­al views/​imaging are need­ed to get a clos­er look at a par­tic­u­lar area of con­cern before a more defin­i­tive assess­ment can be made about the finding. 

9. What do I do if I’m ner­vous about get­ting my mammogram? 

Breast can­cer is some­thing that affects many women, and it’s nor­mal to feel a lit­tle anx­ious about your first mam­mo­gram. You may be wor­ried about what your mam­mo­gram is going to feel like or what your results will look like. 

Just remem­ber that get­ting your mam­mo­gram is an impor­tant way to pro­tect your breast health. If you learn more about what to expect and talk to your provider ahead of time, it will help to keep your wor­ries at bay. 

Mam­mo­grams are one of the best tools avail­able to detect breast can­cer early.

Sched­ule a mam­mo­gram today

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