Breast calcifications are calcium deposits found through screening mammograms. When calcium builds up in soft tissue, it can appear like small white specks or salt crystals on diagnostic images. These spots can be found in various organs, such as the lungs or brain, but they’re commonly found in breast tissue with screening mammograms.
“Breast calcifications are pretty common, but most people don’t know they have them unless they have been mentioned on prior mammogram reports,” says Mark Dryden, M.D.
So, are these white spots a sign of cancer? Here, Dryden answers this and three more questions about breast calcifications.
Are breast calcifications a sign of cancer?
They’re often benign, but calcifications can sometimes be an earlysign of breast cancer. “The most common form of cancer we see with calcifications is ductal carcinoma in situ, which is considered stage 0 cancer,” Dryden says.
Benign calcifications are often scattered throughout both breasts. If one breast has calcifications and the other doesn’t, that could be a sign that we need to take a closer look at them. “Breasts are often symmetrical, so when we see that one breast has calcifications and the other doesn’t, that could be a red flag,” Dryden says.
Calcifications can also be a sign of non-cancerous conditions and may represent a benign process. Fibrocystic breasts, which feel lumpy or rope-like in texture, can also be associated with calcifications.
What causes breast calcifications?
Though they are made of a buildup of calcium, a calcium-rich diet won’t cause calcifications. “You’re not going to get breast calcifications from drinking too much milk,” Dryden says.
It’s not clear exactly what causes calcium to settle into certain parts of the body, but Dryden stresses this condition is common.
What happens if breast calcifications show up on a mammogram?
Benign calcifications can have distinct features when looked at under magnification, so Dryden says your radiologist may be able to rule out cancer by just looking at them more closely.
“We have different techniques to get a closer view of calcifications,” Dryden says. These techniques are performed just like a regular mammogram, but with stronger imaging technology to focus on the spots called magnification views.
For benign calcifications, you won’t need further treatment. And, since calcifications don’t move around, they’ll be documented in your health history. That way, the person performing any future screenings will take note of pre-existing calcifications.
If there’s a suspicion of cancer, you’ll likely undergo a biopsy. “But just because you need a biopsy doesn’t mean you’re going to get a cancer diagnosis,” Dryden says. “A biopsy is also a way to prove something is benign.”
Using a needle and image-guided techniques, your doctor will take a sample of tissue containing the calcifications from inside the breast, then send it to pathologists, who will determine if the sample is cancerous, benign, or pre-cancerous. If the calcifications are pre-cancerous, you may need to have surgery to remove them.
If your calcifications are cancerous, your care team will discuss treatment options with you.
Can I prevent breast calcifications?
It’s not clear why some people have breast calcifications and some don’t. “There aren’t risk factors or lifestyle factors that cause calcifications as far as we know,” Dryden says.
The best way to be aware of them is to schedule regular screening mammograms based on your individual risk. Women at average risk of developing breast cancer should get a mammogram every year starting at age 40.
“Talk to your doctor about your individual risk to get the recommended screening schedule for you,” Dryden says.