RICHMOND, Va. – Doctors compare breast density to traits like eye color or shoe size, it’s a part of how a human is made. Breast density is also something doctors examine to look at to see how it affects a patient's risk for cancer.
Breast imaging radiologist Dr. Priti Shah, with VCU Massey Cancer Center, examines hundreds of images, searching for potential spots of cancer. The denser the breast tissue, the more white it appears on a mammogram.
“More than 50% of the X-ray is more white than gray, we say they have dense breast tissue,” said Dr. Shah.
About fifty percent of women have breasts that are considered fatty or low density.
About 40 percent have heterogeneous breasts, which are denser, and indicates a slight increase in cancer risk.
The remaining 10-percent of women have extremely dense breasts. Some studies show their risk for cancer is doubled.
When doctors like Dr. Shah examine images, they also look for something else.
“Dense breast tissue can sometimes make it harder to see because lumps can be the same shade of white as the dense breast tissue which can hide a lump amidst normal background of breast tissue,” said Dr. Shah.
Virginia is one of 27 states with laws requiring doctors to explain your breast density during your mammogram if the images appear 50 percent white. Dr. Shah says it’s a good idea for patients.
"So, they can have that information and make more informed decisions about their healthcare,” said Shah
Virginia’s law was passed in July of 2012. Under the law, doctors are only required to inform patients of their breast density. It does not require insurance companies to cover additional testing such as another mammogram or ultrasound.
A person can’t change their breast density, but hormonal changes, diet and weight can cause fluctuations in tissue density over time.