Dense breasts became a hot topic recently, when it was revealed that a lot of women don't realise breast density can potentially increase your risk of cancer. But before we get nipple-deep into this serious topic, we thought we'd first clarify a few statistics — just in case all the cancer talk is starting to make you feel a bit nervous about your boobs.
As an easy rule of thumb, three-quarters of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50, and about a quarter in women under 50. While medically it is rare for someone under the age of 35 to develop breast cancer, it is possible — but it's more likely to be women with increased risk factors. It's also worth noting that in Australia we are incredibly lucky to have access to quality treatments, and that most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not die as a result.
While we know the topic of self-examination can seem complicated and confusing, the experts strongly recommend not stressing yourself out about it, and instead practicing "breast awareness." So get touchy with your boobs, get used to how they feel, and the way they change throughout your cycle, but don't drive yourself (and your poor boobs) crazy. If you do think something doesn't feel right, or you need more information, make sure you speak to your GP.
Because we were curious about what dense breasts actually are, we spoke to Board Director of Breast Cancer Trials associate professor Nicholas Wilcken to get all the facts.
How Do I Know If I Have Dense Breasts?
There's no need to start feeling your boobs in a desperate bid to figure out if you've got dense breasts or not. "By definition," says professor Wilcken, "dense breasts are not something you can feel — they can only be detected by a mammogram." However Nicholas says, "In general if you are under 40, unless you've got a strong family history or you've found a lump you shouldn't just go and have a mammogram to find out if you have dense breasts."
Does Having Dense Breasts Increase Your Breast Cancer Risk?
In short, the answer is yes. "Women with dense breasts have a slightly higher risk — 20 percent — of getting breast cancer, as compared to those with non-dense breasts," explains professor Wilcken. "For example, if you looked at 1,000 women with non-dense breasts, you might eventually find 10 cases, compared to 1,000 women with dense breasts, where you might find 12. So it's an increased risk, but nothing hopefully too scary."
Do Dense Breasts Make Self-Screening More Difficult?
Nope, so you don't need to worry. "As you can't physically feel a dense breast, there's not really any difference," says professor Wilcken. "Self-examination can be confusing . . . it's always a good idea to know what your breasts feel like, and in premenopasual women that varies throughout the cycle. If you teach women to really carefully examine their breasts, and they do it [too often], then it can actually create more fuss than you solve. That's why we use this phrase 'breast awareness,' so know what they feel like, know that they change throughout your cycle and know if something doesn't feel right — but don't ruthlessly self-examine in great detail, because you're probably going to find funny things that are nothing [of concern]."
Can Any Size Breast Be Dense?
As a general rule, breast size is not connected to your risk of getting breast cancer. Professor Wilcken says, "You can just as much get breast cancer in a small breast as a big breast."
Are Dense Breasts Hereditary?
According to professor Wilcken, dense breasts are more dependant on your age than specific genes but "there probably is an associated genetic component." Essentially, the younger you are, the denser your breasts will be, so a woman in her 30s will naturally have fairly dense breasts in comparison to a women in her 60s. "This is one of the reasons why we don't advocate doing screening mammograms on women in their 30s [with no risk factors], because it's harder to see if there are lumps in dense breasts. That's one of the reasons why screening works best on over-50s."
Does Having Dense Breasts Make It Harder to Detect Abnormal Changes?
You'll still be able to feel a lump regardless of your breast density (or lack therof). However, when it comes to detecting lumps on mammograms, this is where dense breasts make things more difficult. "Yes, it does tend to make detection [on a mammogram] more difficult," says professor Wilcken. "There are some specialised situations where women have a mutation, and have lots of breast cancer in their family, where we actually do an MRI as well as mammograms for that reason."
Are There Any Additional Precautions Women With Dense Breasts Should Take?
There is the option of having MRI scans as well as mammograms, as part of the screening and detection process. However this is normally targeted at women with increased risk factors, such as having a number of relatives who have been diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40. "Out of all breast cancer cases, 10 percent will have the gene mutation BRCA 1 and 2, so it is uncommon", says professor Wilcken. If you do fall into this risk category though, make sure you discuss breast density with your doctor.