Breast cancer and understanding your breast type

What does your breast type say about your cancer risk? Quite a bit, actually.

Whether you have large, small or lumpy breasts, self-awareness is very important. Getting to know how your breasts look and feel can help you recognize possible red flags.

Large 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 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: A mammogram may be able to detect what can’t be felt.

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 mammogram will find an unusual spot. Not to fear.

While it’s more difficult for mammograms to detect abnormalities in women with dense breasts, it’s not impossible. With digital mammograms, the radiologist reading your mammogram can make image adjustments to make it easier to find anything unusual.

Even though women with dense breasts have a slight increase in breast cancer risk, it’s not enough to signal the need for additional tests.

Your yearly mammogram is enough. The only instance in which you may need more tests, such as an MRI, is if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer.

Lumpy breasts

Women often think, “Having lumpy breasts increases my chances of getting cancer.” This belief is wrong.

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

Many women with lumpy breasts have told me that they’re afraid they won’t be able to tell an unusual lump from a normal one. This simply isn’t the case. 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 mammograms, bring prior mammograms to share with your doctor. That way, your doctor can compare your recent exam results with past ones to better detect changes.

Breast 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.

Self-awareness after implants is still important, so get to know your new breasts. Be aware of the look and feel. Look for new folds or dimples caused by the implants. This will help you notice changes in your new breasts. Implants tend to push natural tissue to the outside of the breast, which can make it easier to notice strange lumps.

No matter what kind of breasts you have, the message stays the same: If you want to find and beat breast cancer, get your yearly screening exams.

Therese B. Bevers is medical editor of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Focused on Health.

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  • Jackie Fox

    This was great, easy to understand, and needed. Thank you! I never knew I had dense breast tissue or that it was a risk factor until I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (which I also had never heard of) thanks to a digital mammogram.

    I bet a lot of people will be sharing this. I know I will.

    Jackie Fox
    Author, From Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned And You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer

  • Rajan G.

    Great post and very timely. Cannot stress the density bit enough. There was a canadian sponsored study last year that implied that dense breasts with lumpectomy might have a slightly higher risk of recurrence. Further trials are needed to confirm for sure but knowing that the risk might exist will itself alert a cancer survivor to a more aware and proactive. The study can be found here –

  • Roberta Friedman

    Hello, the section on dense breasts is so misinformed. Women with dense breasts are five times more likely to get cancer. And mammography is simply not enough. Please see Connecticut is the first state to mandate that women be informed of their breast tissue density and angry women diagnosed with late stage cancers are going to make sure other states follow. I had annual mammograms for seven years, including digital, which all missed my extensive DCIS and an invasive tumor that I found myself six months after a digital mammogram read, all clear. Do yourself a favor and find out your breast density. You will need to educate your own physician perhaps, and yourself, but this way you can be alert to the need for further testing.

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