Posted on August 23, 2012

At Breast Cancer Action we’ve made it our business to empower women through unbiased and nuanced information. We believe breast cancer is a public health problem. We know too many women are dying from this disease and we refuse to pretend that there are easy answers and quick fixes. We believe women can make their own decisions with unbiased information in its full complexity.

These past few weeks, breast density has been in the news. On Aug 20, 2012, in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers reported that high breast density does not increase the risk of death among breast cancer patients. The collaborative study between researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the NCI-sponsored Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC) looked at the population-based registry records of over 9,000 women and found breast cancer patients with high-density breasts did not have a higher risk of dying from breast cancer than patients with lower density breasts.

Yet despite the publicity around this study, there’s been no clear information about exactly what breast density means for women.

The term “breast density” refers to relative amounts of different kinds of tissue in the breast. Dense breasts have less fat than glandular and connective tissue and young women are more likely to have dense breasts. These ratios matter because different tissue allows X-rays to penetrate differently and mammograms of dense breasts are harder to read and interpret and are therefore less reliable at revealing tumors, lesions, and cancers.

Previous studies have shown that women with dense breasts are at an increased risk for cancer. While screening recommendations exist for women at high-risk, such as women with BRCA1 & 2 mutations, there are currently no medical recommendations for women at intermediate risk, such as women with dense breasts.

Speaking of quick fixes, it’s worth noting that there are currently a number of so-called “dense breast bills” circulating through various state legislatures that would require practitioners to notify women who get a mammogram about their breast density. Unfortunately, the importance of breast density is still not well understood and as a result there is no clear action for women who receive this information. Breast Cancer Action believes that medical practitioners should discuss all aspects of a woman’s health with her and we do not believe legislation is the appropriate way to address the issue of breast density. We believe resources and energy are better spent on working for better medical care and understanding the ways to prevent breast cancer in the first place.