Researchers with a new alliance, based in Australia and called INFORMD (INformation FORum on Mammographic Density), are warning that women with dense breast tissue are more likely to develop breast cancer and less likely to have their cancer detected through regular mammogram screening — because tumors and dense breast tissue both appear as white, bright areas on mammograms.
“We’ve grown concerned that Australian women are not aware of the significance of breast density in the diagnosis and prevention of breast cancer,” Wendy Ingman, INFORMD spokesperson and a lead researcher at the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research, said in a press release.
About 8 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 74 years old have extremely dense breasts. Compared to breasts with ‘normal’ density, those with higher density have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue, like glands that make and drain milk. Researchers estimate that women with high breast density have a four- to six-fold increased risk of developing breast cancer compared to women with very low density — although they note that dense breast tissue is not a risk factor for this cancer.
“Breast cancer is more likely to develop in women with dense breast tissue, but not many women know if they have dense breast tissue. We believe it’s important to inform women about breast density so they can make the right choices for their health,” Ingman said. “With the technology currently available, it is harder to see tumors in breasts with denser tissue on a mammogram. The danger is that these women are at risk of having tumors missed at the time of screening.”
INFORMD researchers, as part of its efforts to both make women more aware of breast density and to better treat those with dense breasts, suggest:
- Developing evidence-based guidance for general practitioners (GPs)
- Implementing improved methods for measuring breast density and for predicting which women are most likely to develop breast cancer
- Encouraging women to have regular mammograms, as mammography screenings remain the gold standard for breast cancer diagnosis
- Encouraging women to talk to their GPs to assess their breast density through a mammogram
- Using additional screening methods, like ultrasounds and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), after considering the costs and benefits
- Raising breast awareness in women of all ages, so they do regular self-exams
Scientists and clinicians do not agree on any single tool or method for measuring breast density, the researchers said, adding that density also cannot be evaluated solely by the feel of the breasts’ texture during a self- or doctor’s exam.
“Our ultimate aim is to save women’s lives,” Ingman added. “We hope to do this by increasing prevention and early detection of breast cancer, and by increasing the understanding and better utilization of breast cancer screening in Australia, to lower the impact of this disease.”
INFORMD includes investigators from the Universities of Adelaide, Melbourne, Western Australia, Queensland University of Technology, and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Victoria.