Lumpy or Dense: Your "Breast" Defense

October 2012

breast cancer mammogramby Adelina Espat

Can your breast type affect your breast exam? More than you realize, says Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center.

And, getting the most out of your exam is important. It ups your odds of finding cancer as soon as possible when the disease is easiest to treat.

Bevers breaks down what you need to know.

Dense breasts

Women with dense breasts have more glandular tissue. This results in mammogram images that are harder to read.

If you have dense breasts, you may be worried that your yearly screening exam won’t find an unusual spot. Not to fear.

“Yes, it’s harder for mammograms to detect abnormalities in women with dense breasts. But, it’s not impossible,” Bevers says. “With digital mammograms, it’s easier to find anything unusual in your breasts.”

Women with dense breasts also can choose to get a yearly breast ultrasound as an extra screening precaution.

Ask your health insurance provider if this is covered under your benefits. Not all providers cover the costs of screening ultrasounds for women with dense breasts.

breast cancer mamogramLarge vs. small breasts

When it comes to cancer risk, size really doesn’t matter. But, size can affect your mammogram and clinical breast exam.

For example, women with large breasts may need more mammogram pictures taken of their breasts than women with small breasts. Doing this ensures that a doctor gets images of all the breast tissue. During a clinical breast exam, it’s usually easier for a doctor to feel a mass in women with small breasts than women with large breasts. 

“That’s why it’s important for women with large breasts to get a yearly mammogram,” Bevers says. “A mammogram may be able to detect what can’t be felt.”

Lumpy breasts

breast cancer mammogramHere’s a common myth: “Having lumpy breasts increases my chances of getting cancer.” This belief is wrong, says Bevers.

Lumpy breasts are usually a result of fibrocystic changes. Lumps also may simply be normal female breast tissue which is on the bumpy side. Neither increases your chances of developing breast cancer.

“I’ve heard many women with lumpy breasts say they’re worried that they won’t be able to tell an unusual lump from a normal one,” Bevers says. “This is not true. Women with lumpy breasts can still feel when something isn’t right.”  

Think of lumpy breasts as a bag of peas. If someone put a rock in your bag of peas, it would feel very different from the peas in the bag. Likewise, you’d notice an unusual lump because it wouldn’t feel like the other lumps in your breast.

When you get a new mammogram, it’s extremely important to share your prior mammogram results with your doctor. That way, your doctor can compare your recent exam results with past ones and better detect changes that have occurred.

breast cancer mammogramBreast implants

Having implants doesn’t mean you can’t get breast cancer. You still have breast tissue, so you need to get your yearly mammogram and clinical breast exam.

Implants can make it difficult to see the natural breast tissue during a mammogram. So, the person doing your mammogram will take additional pictures with your implants moved aside to make sure all breast tissue is clearly in view.

Get to know your breasts

“Whether you have implants, large, small or lumpy breasts, self-awareness is very important,” Bevers says. “Get to know your breasts. Knowing how they look and feel can help you recognize possible red flags.” 

Therese Bevers, M.D., is medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center. Did you know you can get your breast cancer screening exams along with a personalized prevention plan at MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center? Schedule an appointment today by calling 713-745-8040.