As women, we are bombarded every October with pink ribbons, athletes wearing pink socks, and commercials and billiards telling us to get a mammogram. Every year, millions of women are subjected to harmful ionizing radiation as directed by their health care providers. We need to ask if mammography is the best screening tool for breast cancer detection, especially for women with dense breasts.
What exactly are dense breasts and why is this important to know? Having dense breastsis very common; it affects close to 50% of women. Some of us may have been told, following a mammogram, that our breasts are dense and therefore higher on the breast density scale. It’s not an abnormal finding. However, it can increase chances of developing breast cancer in the future.
Dense breasts have nothing to do with bra size, or how they look or feel. It’s also not the same as having lumpy, or cystic, breasts. It’s the appearance of the tissue on a mammogram (X-ray) that diagnoses breast density. Breastsare comprised of fatty, glandular and fibrous connective tissue. The amount of each tissue type can vary depending on the woman as well as her age. Fatty tissue is non-dense and appears dark on a mammogram while fibrous and granular tissue is dense and appears white. Having dense breasts simply means there’s a higher percentage of fibrous or glandular tissue in relationship to fatty tissuewithin the breasts. The catch is that having dense breasts makes detecting cancer difficult on a mammogram. Dense tissue appears white and so does cancer;thus, tumors are often missed within the dense tissue. Think of it as looking for a snowball, in a snowstorm.
Mammography is known as the standard of care for breast cancer screenings. However, over the past decade, it has continued to go under scrutiny. There’s no denying that mammograms have saved lives and are helpful in detecting cancer. However, mammograms are known to be less reliable for women with dense breasts because density decreases the sensitivity and effectiveness of mammography. This can lead to inclusive or false-negative mammograms, which may require an additional screening like an ultrasound or thermography. With dense breasts, it is important that we do not rely solely on mammography to check for breast cancer.
Breast thermography is a technology that picks up thermal changes in breast tissue. These thermal changes are the precursors for breast tissue anomalies that can become cancerous. With the addition of thermography, physicians can also detect cancerous processes and tumors in the early stages. Furthermore, breast density does not affect the results or lower the sensitivity of thermography. This makes thermograms accurate for all women of all ages with any breast type, including dense breasts. Unlike a mammogram, a thermogram isn’t invasive; the technician doesn’t touch or flatten the breasts, and there is no radiation exposure. Thermography can also be performed for younger women (under 40) who have no recommended breast screening options, pregnant women and those with breast implants.
Most physicians are more familiar with mammography; many still believe that a mammogram is the best test for detecting breast cancer early. However, studies show that a thermogram identifies precancerous or cancerous cells earlier, produces unambiguous results which cuts down on additional testing, and doesn’t harm the body.
When making decisions about our health, including which breast screening is best, we must do our own research and make the best personal decision for us. We also need to be aware of the drawbacks and risks associated with mammogram screenings. Don’t be intimidated or feel guilty if the choice is not to have an annual mammogram or preferring to forgo mammography completely. A thermogram can tell us how healthy our breasts are rather than just screening them for cancer. When done properly, it has the potential to truly detect subtle breast changes and anomalies long before mammography can detect cancer. This allows each woman and her health care provider to implement lifestyle and dietary changes that can improve the health of her breasts, proactively.