BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - When doctors analyze a mammogram, one thing they consider is the density of the breast. It not only affects a woman's risk of developing cancer but can also affect the doctor's ability to catch it.
Woman's Hospital radiologist Steven Sotile, M.D. has analyzed thousands of images over his career. He's usually looking for a small white spot, but the more dense a breast is, the more white the entire breast appears on a mammogram.
"Trying to see a white mass on a white background becomes difficult," Sotile explained.
About half of all women have breasts considered fatty or low-density. Fatty breasts are not at any higher risk of cancer.
Forty percent of women have heterogeneous breasts, which contain more fibroglandular tissue. That means a slight increase in cancer risk. Fibrous tissue is connective and strengthening tissue, while glandular tissue is involved in the production of milk.
Ten percent of women have extremely dense breasts with high amounts of fibroglandular tissue. Some studies show extremely dense breasts are at double the risk of developing cancer. Women with extremely dense breasts sometimes have more anxiety when it comes to their annual mammogram.
"It's more likely to be lumpy, bumpy, nodular, and those can make it more difficult in a sense that they think they feel something that needs to be evaluated," breast surgical oncologist Mindy Williams Bowie, M.D. said.
As of January 1, 2016, Louisiana is one of 27 states with laws requiring doctors to explain breast density in a post-mammogram report. You can't change the make-up of your breasts, but you can lower cancer risk factors like losing weight and limiting alcohol.
"I think it's good for patients to be aware of their breast density," Sotile said. "If anything it tells them that they need to be proactive and keep a healthy lifestyle to decrease their risk of cancer. Not just breast but other cancers as well."
3D mammograms give radiologists a much better look inside dense tissue. Your doctor may also ask for another view.
"If a woman has dense breasts, oftentimes they will have an ultrasound supplemented with their mammogram," Bowie said.
Many factors influence breast density including genetics, pregnancy, age, menopause, and body weight.