Screening mammography is the most effective tool available in the early detection of breast cancer, but for women with dense breast tissue, detecting a small cancer can be more difficult.

If you’ve been told by your health care provider that you have dense breasts, you may be confused about what it means for your health. Dr. Ana Benveniste, a board-certified radiologist at the Houston Methodist Breast Care Center at Baytown, answers three of your frequently asked questions.

Q: What is breast density?

A: Breast density refers to the composition of a woman’s breasts. All breasts are made up of lobules (glandular tissue that produces milk), ducts (tiny tubes that carry milk), and fatty and fibrous connective tissue that give breasts their size and shape. Dense breasts have less fat and more fibrous and glandular tissue than non-dense breasts. 

Q: Why does breast density matter?

A: Dense breasts are normal and common. Being aware of your breast density is important because women with dense breasts have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer. Having dense breasts can also make it more difficult to detect a small cancer on a standard screening mammogram, because dense breast tissue can look similar to cancer or hide the cancer on a mammogram. If you have dense breasts, talk to your doctor about what types of screenings are appropriate for you. 

Q: Should I get a mammogram if I have dense breasts?

A: Yes. Mammograms are the best way to detect cancer — even for women with dense breast tissue.

Additional screening tools, such tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography, and breast ultrasound, can help to distinguish between dense breast tissue and potential hidden cancers.

Benveniste says having your imaging results interpreted by a breast radiologist who is on-site at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital benefits you in several ways:

Less wait time. Breast radiologists interpret imaging tests on-site so you don’t have to wait hours or days to get your results.

Personalized care. You can meet with the radiologist and ask questions to make sure you understand the results.

Accuracy. There’s less chance you’ll need follow-up imaging tests when an on-site radiologist interprets your results accurately.

Dr. Esther Dubrovsky, breast surgeon at the Houston Methodist Breast Care Center at Baytown, says regular mammograms, along with breast self-examination, will help you in your quest to detect problems early, when chances of a cure are greatest. Mammograms can detect breast cancer up to two years before a lump can be felt.

“You are the first line of defense when it comes to breast cancer. That’s why it’s crucial to know how your breasts normally look and feel,” Dubrovsky said.

Breast cancer symptoms

The following are warning signs of breast cancer. Dubrovsky recommends seeing your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, but keep in mind that most breast lumps aren’t cancer.

• A painless lump or mass in or near the breast

• A change in breast size or firmness

• Breast skin changes, such as dimpling, a sore or a rash

• Nipple itching, burning, rash, turning inward or discharge

• A warm area in the breast

• Pain in the breast

• Swelling under the armpit or of the arm

• Bone pain

To schedule your mammogram at the Houston Methodist Breast Care Center at Baytown, visit houstonmethodist.org/breast-care, or call 855-454-PINK (7465).

US breast cancer survival rates soar 

A breast cancer diagnosis can be a devastating blow. Upon receiving such a diagnosis, people may begin to ask questions about treatment and the impact cancer may have on their personal lives. Many people who are diagnosed with cancer also begin to wonder about their mortality.

An estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 63,960 new cases of non-invasive, or in situ, breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among women in the United States, according to Breastcancer.org

The good news is that breast cancer incidence rates began decreasing in 2000 after increasing for the previous two decades. In addition, death rates from breast cancer have been decreasingly steadily since 1989. 

The National Cancer Institute says that the change in age-adjusted mortality rates are an indicator of the progress being made in the fight against breast cancer. The most recent SEER Cancer Statistics Review released in April 2018 indicates cancer death rates among women decreased by 1.4 percent per year between the years of 2006 and 2015. The American Cancer Society says that decreasing death rates among major cancer types, including prostate, colorectal, lung, and breast cancers, are driving the overall shift in survival. The ACS says breast cancer death rates among women declined by 39 percent from 1989 to 2015. That progress is attributed to improvements in early detection and treatment protocols. For anyone doing the math, over the last 25 years or so, 322,000 lives have been saved from breast cancer. 

Increased knowledge about breast cancer, early detection through examinations and mammography and improved treatments are helping to drive up the survival rates of breast cancer. Although this does not make diagnosis any less scary, it does offer hope to those recently diagnosed.

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