Got Dense Breasts? That Can Depend On Who Is Reading The Mammogram
If you’re a woman who gets screening mammograms, you may have received a letter telling you that your scan was clear, but that you have dense breasts, a risk factor for breast cancer.
About half of U.S. states require providers to notify women if they fall into that category.
But what you may not know is that gauging breast density isn’t a clear-cut process. Researchers reporting in Annals of Internal Medicine Monday found that density assessments varied widely from one radiologist to another. That means you shouldn’t let one finding freak you out too much, nor should you assume something’s wrong if your reported density changes from year to year.
“Women and providers should keep in mind that density is a subjective measure,” says Brian Sprague, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Vermont and an author of the study. And, he says, breast density is only one factor contributing to a woman’s individual risk of getting breast cancer.
About 40 percent of women between 40 and 74 years old have dense breasts — meaning they have more breast tissue (that is, ducts and glands) and connective tissue and less fatty tissue than women whose breasts aren’t dense. You can’t know your status by how the breasts feel; it only shows up on a mammogram.
Dense breasts make it harder for radiologists to detect possible abnormalities on a mammogram, and the presence of the tissue itself is an independent risk factor for breast cancer.
The researchers looked at 216,783 mammograms from more than 145,000 women, interpreted by 83 radiologists in Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The average proportion of mammograms that fell into the “extremely dense” or “heterogeneously dense” categories was 38.7 percent. But the proportion of mammograms assigned to those two categories by individual radiologists ranged from 6.3 percent to 84.5 percent.
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Author: KATHERINE HOBSON, Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She’s on Twitter: @katherinehobson