Breast Cancer Program: Need for Early Risk Assessment

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Breast Cancer: Need for Early Risk Assessment




Welcome to this month’s Breast Health e-Newsletter.  Our topic:  dense breast tissue may be a risk factor for cancer.  A study suggests that breast cancer risk and prevention should start much earlier in life than is typically done now.  The study was reported in the medical journal Lancet Oncology.  It examined breast cancer risk factors in young women.  Included were 400 women, ages 15 to 39, and their mothers.


The study found that the composition of breast tissue in young women may be linked with their risk for breast cancer in middle and older age.  Lead researcher Dr. Norman Boyd says the breast is most susceptible to the effects of cancer-causing agents at early ages.  He hopes that by identifying the environmental and genetic factors that influence breast tissue composition early in life, experts may be able to develop methods of prevention.  For the study, researchers looked at the amount of dense breast tissue, called mammographic density.  This varies among women and is a risk factor for breast cancer in middle-aged and older women.  Experts know that the risk of breast cancer increases as this density increases.  However, little is known about early development of mammographic density in young women, or how it’s related to their height, weight, age, or mother’s breast density. 


The study authors conclude that a subset of the population with the greatest amount of fibroglandular tissue in early life is most likely to have high-density breast tissue in middle age.  For years, researchers have known that breast density is almost as important as age in predicting who will develop breast cancer.  But now, they are finding that the density of a woman’s breast tissue can also predict how she will respond to cancer treatment, and whether her cancer will recur. 


Epidemiologist Dr. Diana Buist explains that a denser breast has less fat, making it harder to see tumors on a mammogram.  High-density on a mammogram shows up white, she adds, so does cancer.  This makes cancer detection more difficult and can increase reports of possible abnormalities.  Medical professor Dr. Karla Kerlikowske says about 10 to 15 percent of women have low-density breasts.  Another 10 to 15 percent have very dense breasts.  And the rest have breasts with a density somewhere in the middle.  She adds that the average woman may not have a clue whether or not her breasts are dense.  Dr. Kerlikowske notes that women with very high-density breasts have nearly four times the risk for breast cancer compared to women with low-density.  Although density often decreases with age, especially after menopause, it remains a risk factor.  


For more information, please consult your doctor.  Thank you for listening.  Please visit our website for more information on health and wellness topics:


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