No, it doesn't mean how heavy or firm your girls are. Breast density actually has to do with the tissue in your breasts and how that shows up on a mammogram. But while you can't feel this out on your own, you might find out about it at your next screening: Many states have adopted breast density notification laws, which require physicians to inform a patient if they have dense breasts, according to a new report in the journal Radiology.
So why should you care about how dense your set is? There are two main reasons, according to Debra Ikeda, M.D., professor of radiology at Stanford School of Medicine. "There's an association between dense breast tissue and a slightly higher risk of having breast cancer," says Ikeda. Though this association is much smaller than any genetic risk factor. "The second problem is that of masking," says Ikeda. This is what happens when dense breast tissue shows up as white on a mammogram, making it harder to spot cancer, which also shows up white. However, studies have shown that this is less of an issue in digital mammograms as opposed to film screen mammograms.
But don't freak out if you see this new language on your mammography report. While researchers seem pretty divided on the issue, having dense breast tissue doesn't necessarily mean you need additional tests—especially since roughly half of all women have dense breasts. It's simply something to keep in mind and to discuss with your doctor—along with any other risk factors you may have, says Ikeda. Some experts believe these new laws will help catch breast cancer earlier than normal, while others think it will lead to even more unnecessary screening, costs, and anxiety.
"Mainly, what women want to know is, 'Do I need to have another screening test?'" says Ikeda. While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, the best plan of action is talking to your doctor about your mammography report and your risk factors to make that decision. For example, if you found out you have dense breasts as well as a family history of breast cancer, your doctor might suggest you get an MRI or ultrasound. Yet another women with dense breast tissue and no other risk factors might just request a digital mammogram on her next screening."There are still many questions to be answered about dense breast tissue and how best to manage one's own health," says Ikeda.