Don’t fear warnings about breast tissue

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s health section on April 17, 2013.

If you’ve had a mammogram in California, you may soon be receiving a letter telling you that the type of breast tissue you have puts you at a slightly higher risk for breast cancer. This sounds like a scary piece of mail, but the message from a group of California radiologists and breast cancer specialists, including many at Stanford, is: “Don’t panic.” The odds of not getting cancer are still on your side.

Under California law that went into effect April 1, doctors must notify women if their mammograms show they have dense breast tissue, or breasts that contain more glandular and connective tissue than fat. Fat is dark gray on a mammogram image, but glandular and connective tissues are white – the same color as cancer – so denser breast tissue can make tumors tougher to spot.

Receiving this letter “doesn’t mean you have cancer, and it doesn’t mean you have to rush out and see your doctor. It’s just giving you information about your body,” said Dr. Debra Ikeda, professor of radiology and director of breast imaging at Stanford.

Ikeda and colleagues created a video PSA stressing that dense breasts are a much smaller indication of cancer than family history and lifestyle factors, and mammograms are still the gold standard of cancer screening.

Here are the numbers:

1 in 2

The ratio of women whose mammograms reveal they have dense breast tissue, which qualifies them to receive letters from their doctors under the new California law.

1 in 8

The ratio of women who will get breast cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s the second most common cancer in women, after skin cancer.

1 in 36

The ratio of women who will die of breast cancer – and the rates are declining. However, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, behind lung cancer.


The age at which most women should start getting yearly mammograms, according to the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and several other doctors’ groups. If a woman’s doctor deems her at high risk for breast cancer, mammograms can start at younger ages, and there are other tests, such as ultrasounds and MRIs, that doctors may recommend to women with dense breasts and accompanying factors that increase their risks for cancer.