Breast density questions for patients

Tennessee recently passed a law requiring that mammogram patients receive information about their breast density.

Here are answers to commonly asked questions regarding dense breasts:

  • What are dense breasts?

    “Dense breasts” describes how clearly the breast tissue appears on the mammogram. The radiologist reading your mammogram estimates the density of your breast tissue. In general, breast density decreases as you grow older.

  • Is it common to have dense breasts?

    Yes. Up to half of all women have dense breasts.

  • Why does this matter?

    Dense breast tissue, which appears white on the mammogram, can hide breast cancer. Also, dense breast tissue may slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer.

  • How do I find out if I have dense breasts?

    You will receive a letter in the mail from the facility that did your mammogram. The letter will provide the results of the mammogram and information about your breast density.

  • Can I decrease my breast density?

    For most women, there’s not much that can be done to change breast density.

  • How can I find out my risk of getting breast cancer?

    Your provider can help estimate your risk. The average lifetime risk for developing breast cancer is about 12%, or 1 in 8 women. 12% to 20% lifetime risk is considered “intermediate” and over 20% is considered “high”. If dense breast tissue were your only risk factor, you would be in the intermediate risk group.

  • What should I do if I am intermediate or high risk?

    Talk with your provider. Depending on your risk and other factors, you and your provider may decide that supplemental (extra) screening tests are recommended.

  • What other screening tests can I get?
    1. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
    2. Ultrasound
    3. Digital breast tomosynthesis or 3-D mammography (DBT)

    The radiologist and your provider can help decide which test may be right for you.

  • Will my insurance cover extra screening?

    That will depend on your risk. Currently, Medicare and most insurance companies don’t pay for supplemental screening in average to intermediate risk women.  Insurance usually covers supplemental screening in women at high risk.

  • Do I need an order from my provider for supplemental screening?

    Yes.

  • I got a letter saying that my breasts are dense. What next?

    You and your health care provider should discuss how this affects your risk and whether supplemental screening is right for you.

  • Are there any disadvantages to supplemental screening?

    Supplemental screening tests are not perfect. These tests may reveal issues that lead to more testing and biopsies even when no cancer is present.

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