Getting Smart About Being Dense

Mammograms are one of the most effective tools in detecting breast cancer. But in women with non-fatty or dense breast tissue, detection can be difficult and additional screening may be needed.

"Breast tissue that has minimal or no fat may appear white, or dense, on a mammogram. This sometimes makes it difficult to identify cancers, which also typically appear as small, white spots," says Roshni Rao, M.D., Assistant Professor of Surgical Oncology.

Radiologists use a grading system to describe breast tissue density based on the amount of fat (nondense) and connective (dense) tissue. Generally, as women age, their breast tissue becomes more fatty. Fat shows up as black on a mammogram, making tumors easier to see. "Many factors contribute to a woman's risk of breast cancer," Dr. Rao says. "Having dense breast tissue may be one of them, but your doctor considers other factors when evaluating your risk and tailoring your screening program."

According to Dr. Rao, those factors may include:

  • The age at which you had your first child
  • A family history of cancer
  • Your age at the onset of menstruation

It's a fact

Texas law requires that women be informed about their breast tissue's density and the limitations of mammography in certain cases. Known as "Henda's Law," the statute was inspired by a breast cancer patient, Henda Salmeron, who was successfully treated by Dr. Rao.