What Is Breast Density & Why Does It Matter? Here's Why You Should Ask Your Gyno More About It
Tell me if this sounds familiar: Sitting in the waiting room of your gynecologist’s office, a million questions run through your mind. The second your name is called to see the doctor, though, you’re shaken, and it all gets erased from your head like art on an Etch A Sketch. This is pretty much me at every gyno appointment. I could bring notecards to the doctor's office and still guarantee that, the second my OBGYN walks through the door, I'll go off-script. It’s important to make sure you’re asking any and every question you have, like what breast density is, does this detail matter in the long run, and if your breasts are dense, what does that mean in terms of your chances of developing breast cancer? Trust me, I completely understand that a trip to the gyno isn’t exactly fun, and that the entire process can be uncomfortable, regardless of whether you’re friendly with your doctor or not. But your OBYGN is your number one source to the answers to these types of questions, and for the sake of your health, it’s really important to speak up.
Per the World Health Organization’s records, October was first named National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985 to help spread awareness about the disease. The heartbreaking reality is, according to BreastCancer.org, approximately one in eight women in the United States is expected to “develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.” In 2018 alone, according to the organization, it is estimated that 266,120 cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed, in addition to 63,960 cases of non-invasive breast cancer.
The problem is, according to experts, it can be hard for women with a high breast density to be properly diagnosed, making it even more crucial for women to know what breast density is, and to ask their OBGYN if their breasts are dense.
While I can’t necessarily save you a trip to the gyno, I did reach out to a few experts in the space to narrow down what, exactly, breast density is, and how it can affect your health. Simply put, your breasts are made up of fibrous, glandular (i.e. either related to or affecting your glands), and fatty tissue, and their density is a reflection of their percentage of fibrous or glandular tissue, leading OB/GYN DaCarla Albright, M.D. tells Elite Daily. Because breast density is only detectable through a mammogram or other imaging system, Albright says it’s important for women to talk to their doctor and request this type of examination.
So where does the link to breast cancer come in? Well, when a woman has a high percentage of breast density, the fibrous and glandular tissues show up as white matter on your mammogram, Poornima Srinivasan, a women's health imaging expert and transformational health consultant for Frost & Sullivan, tells Elite Daily over email. And because this white matter is very clearly evident on the screen, “the presence of dense tissue generally makes it more difficult to detect abnormalities in the breast,” Srinivasan explains. “As lumps, cancerous and non-cancerous growth, also appear white, there are possibilities to be missed out on a mammogram.” In other words, the higher the percentage of breast density, the more difficult it’s going to be for your gynecologist to spot any potential signs of cancer.
Something worth noting here: Srinivasan makes it very clear in her statements to Elite Daily that there is no evidence to suggest that breast density causes breast cancer. However, Albright says women with very dense breasts are “four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with less dense breasts,” and from what I understand, this is more or less a result of women with dense breasts not being aware of their breast density, and therefore not getting the right screenings. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by breast cancer screening technology company, Hologic, 68 percent of women don’t know their breast density score.
So, once you've talked to your OBGYN, and you've gone through the necessary examinations to figure out the density of your breasts, it's important for you to then discuss what measures you should be taking in order to stay on top of your breast health. According to the American Cancer Society, regular mammograms are typically recommended for women ages 40 and up, but for women younger than 20 years old, Srinivasan says performing monthly self-exams is advised.
If you’ve never performed a self-examination, Dr. Robert Segal, co-founder of LabFinder.com, has provided Elite Daily with some pretty straightforward guidelines. First, he says, try self-examining in front of a mirror; that way, you can check for visible signs of lumps. From there, if you don’t see anything, “raise your arms high and inspect for any signs of swelling, or changes in the nipples (changes in size, color, discharge, etc.),” Segal explains. “Then, move your arms so that your hands are pressed against your hips and flex your muscles.”
Alternatively, you could also self-examine in the shower, as the soap on your hands might make it easier to glide over the breasts. Or, Segal adds, you could also “place a pillow under your right shoulder” with your right arm behind your head. “Using the left hand, move your fingers in circular motions around the right side breast” he instructs, and repeat the process on the left side to search for bumps.
Even if your breasts aren't dense, you should still be performing self-examinations regularly. Becoming familiar with your body in this way can help you become better aware of what's normal, versus what could be a potential issue. Remember: Knowledge is power, and only you can know your body better than anyone.