What are "dense breasts" and how do you know if you've got them?

With AAP

It’s a common risk factor for breast cancer – but most of us are still in the dark about breast density.

Around two-thirds of women don’t know that breast density can obscure a lump or lesion on a mammogram – making it harder for breast cancer to be detected early, a national survey commissioned by health organisation Pink Hope has found.

So what are “dense breasts” and how do you know if you’ve got them?

Basically, the denser the breast, the more white there is on the mammogram, Professor Mary Theresa Rickard, Chief Radiologist at Sydney Breast Clinic told AAP.

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“The whiter the mammogram the greater your risk of getting breast cancer,” Prof Rickard explained.

“Our chances of finding a cancer on a dense breast are not as good as they are on finding it on a fatty breast, so greater chance that your cancer will be missed if you have a dense breast.”

Unfortunately, Prof Rickard explained, high breast density is not something you can know by touching or looking at your breasts.

The the only way you can find out is if you’ve had a mammogram.

But – and here’s the problem Pink Hope wants to do something about – the radiologist performing your mammogram will not routinely tell you if you have dense breasts, unless you live in Western Australia.


Women in other parts of Australia need to ask their radiologist if they have high-density breasts at the time of their screening, something Prof Richard encourages women to do.

The whiter the breast the higher risk of breast cancer. (Image via iStock.)

She says women need to be their "best breast advocate" and ask the question at their next mammogram.

"If you know that your density is high then you can make sure that your breast cancer screening is personalised and tailored to your risk," said Prof Rickard.

Meanwhile, Pink Hope wants is calling on the federal government to better-equip the healthcare community with the necessary tools, information and guidelines to ensure a unified and consistent approach to breast density diagnosis and treatment.


"We know that women are being referred to their GP, but that GPs - as a result of Australia's lack of consistency on breast density - currently lack the established guidelines on breast density needed to best support them," Krystal Barter, Pink Hope CEO said.

"In many states in America, women during a mammogram, they have to by law be told they have dense breast tissue, there are systems in place overseas and they may not be exactly what we need here but at least they are doing something proactive.

"For one of the biggest breast cancer risk factors there is no system in place for personalised management, we are just a bit behind the eight-ball on that one."

Pink Hope is a preventative health organisation working to ensure every individual can assess, manage and reduce their risk of breast and ovarian cancer, providing every family the support they need. They encourage everyone to have a conversation with their family about their health history and empower each other to take control of their breast and ovarian cancer risk.

To take the first step in knowing your risk, take Pink Hope's Know Your Risk online questionnaire, which assesses your risk of cancer. It's free and only takes five minutes, but could save your life. You can also donate to Pink Hope on their website.