Almost eight percent of women have extremely high breast density, which increases their cancer risk and can make it harder for health professionals to detect breast cancer on a screening mammogram.
This is the warning from a new Australian alliance of breast cancer researchers, who are working together to raise awareness of the issue in the hope of improving cancer diagnosis and health outcomes for women.
The group, called INFORMD (Information Forum on Mammographic Density), includes researchers from The University of Western Australia, universities of Adelaide and Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Victoria.
Dr Jennifer Stone, senior research fellow from The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Genetic Origins of Health and Disease, and an internationally recognised expert in mammographic density research, is part of the alliance.
Dr Stone said breast cancer is more likely to develop in women with dense breast tissue and if breast cancer does develop, it is harder to see in dense breast tissue as both appear white on a mammogram.
Dense breasts have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue, such as glands that produce and drain milk, compared to breasts that are not dense.
“Breast density can be measured at the time of mammographic screening however, it is not clear how best to use that information to aid early detection and prevention of the disease,” Dr Stone said.
“There is considerable research ongoing in this area and in the meantime, we think it is important to start a conversation about breast density to help inform women about this very important risk factor that in future could improve mammographic screening and provide better breast cancer outcomes.”
As yet, there is no single agreed method or tool for measuring breast density, but researchers warn breast density can’t be assessed according to how breasts feel during self-examination or a GP’s physical examination.
Dr Stone said although dense breast tissue was a risk factor for breast cancer, it was important to note not all women with dense breasts would go on to develop breast cancer.
The researchers encourage all women to be breast aware and take advantage of free regular mammograms through BreastScreen services around Australia. Breast density can be assessed through a mammogram which can be arranged through their GP.
The INFORMD alliance is calling for the development of evidence-based guidelines for GPs and other health professionals so they can help women make informed decisions. It also wants to see improved methods for quantifying breast density and improved methods of predicting which women are most likely to develop breast cancer in the future.
Dr Jennifer Stone (UWA Centre for Genetic Origins of Health and Disease) (+61 4) 12 157 708
David Stacey (UWA Media and PR Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716