LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Dense breast tissue has been associated with up to a four times higher risk of breast cancer. Many times a tumor can be masked during a mammogram.

However, a new study suggests few women view breast density as a significant risk factor. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, surveyed more than 1,800 women who recently had a mammogram and asked them to rank breast cancer risks.

Most of the women, 93%, said breast density was a lesser risk than having a first-degree relative with breast cancer. But that’s not true. It’s just the opposite which proves more needs to be done to educate women.

Dense breast tissue refers to breasts that are composed of more glandular and fibrous tissue than fatty tissue. it’s normal and common in about half of the women. The density changes over a woman’s lifetime, and is generally higher in women who are younger, have lower body weight, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or taking hormone replacement therapy.

“Younger women typically have dense breasts on mammography which makes breast cancer harder to detect,” Susan Brown said.

So the tests aren’t as effective in younger women compared to older women.

Thirty-eight states require that women receive written notification about their breast density and potential breast cancer risk after a mammogram. However, it’s often tucked in at the bottom of the report — and not explained — leading to confusion.

Because women with dense breasts are considered to have higher than average cancer risk, it’s often beneficial to have supplemental screening like a breast MRI or breast ultrasound.

Mammography technologist Veronica Knight said a radiologist is able to look through the slices of the images and make pictures that are converted to the computer where they’re reconstructed and create hundreds of images that can be viewed.

For around one-third of women with dense breast tissue, experts say there are a few things to do to reduce risks: 

  • Maintain an active, healthy lifestyle
  • Minimize alcohol consumption
  • Breastfeeding can reduce the risk

The level of breast cancer risk increases with the degree of breast density but experts aren’t sure why. One theory is women who have more breast density also have higher, greater levels of estrogen.

The authors of the study warn that supplemental screening can not only lead to increased rates of cancer detection but may also result in more false-positive results and recall appointments.

You should talk to your doctor about those trade-offs.