Q. I am 40 years old and had my first mammogram. It showed an area that they believe is probably benign (not cancer). They said that I have dense tissue and that it can be harder to evaluate the results. What can I do? How can I help myself?

A.

It is common for younger women who have not yet entered menopause to have dense breasts. Breasts consist of milk glands and ducts, fatty tissue, as well as connective tissue. Fatty tissue appears dark or transparent on a mammogram, making it easy to see through. However, connective tissue shows up as white on a mammogram, making it difficult to detect cancer which also appears white. Think of it as looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm. If a woman’s breasts consist of mostly connective tissue, they are considered “dense.” Some states now require doctors to inform their patients that they have dense breasts, as dense breast tissue can obscure cancerous tissue.

In order to get a better look inside dense breasts, other imaging techniques may be used in addition to mammogram. For instance, your doctor may recommend a breast MRI, which uses magnets instead of radiation. Or, he or she may suggest a breast ultrasound, which uses sound waves to investigate areas of concern picked up on a mammogram. Each test has different benefits and risks, so it is best to talk with your doctor about which makes the most sense for you as an individual. It may be helpful to know that 80% of breast changes are benign, or not related to cancer.

I applaud you for being proactive about your breast health.

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