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What is breast density and does it increase the risk of developing cancer?

A recent study has shown that dense breast tissue poses up to a four times higher risk of developing breast cancer but that many women are unaware of the risks of breast density.

What is breast density? 

This is when more of a particular type of tissue - fibro-glandular - is present, compared to fatty tissue. Generally, younger women will have denser breast tissue than older women. This can also be hereditary.

Why is it important to know? 

One of the reasons why it's important to be aware of this is because it can affect what is seen on a scan. Typically, mammograms are carried out in the UK to screen for breast cancer and it can be more difficult to identify tumours on a mammogram with denser breast tissue. 

Research also indicates that dense breast tissue poses an increased risk of developing breast cancer. It's even more important when the findings of the study indicate that many women are unaware of the risks of breast density.

In the US, there are laws in place requiring women to be notified about their breast density and the potential health implications. The aim is to promote informed decision-making about breast cancer screening and early detection. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms for women between the ages of 45 to 54. However, in the UK, the NHS provides breast screening between the ages of 50 and 53, with mammograms every three years until the age of 71.

Ultrasound and MRI scans can also be used for cancer detection and these can sometimes help to find cancers that aren’t seen on a mammogram. However, they aren’t always offered as a matter of routine. There is also a newer type of mammogram called digital breast tomosynthesis (3D mammography). Again, this is optional, and will depend on local availability. A possible example of inequity within cancer diagnostic services.

What can we do about this in the UK?

Perhaps the age limit for breast screening in the UK should be lowered, with more frequent scans, and more consideration given to alternatives to mammography, where appropriate. 

As always, this will likely come down to cost. It may not be cost effective for the NHS to offer this, but what of the additional treatment costs in a case where a cancer diagnosis was avoidably delayed? At Irwin Mitchell, we have acted for many clients where there has been an avoidable delay in diagnosis, and the impact on the client and their family can be devastating.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK. Cancer Research UK’s website indicates that as many as 23% of breast cancer cases are preventable. If people have concerns about their individual risk of breast cancer, and of the implications of breast density, they should feel able to at least discuss these concerns with a clinician, and then make an informed decision about the best way forward.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by cancer at our dedicated cancer claims section.