How 3D Mammograms May Help Doctors Detect Breast Cancer More Easily

You know it's important to check your breasts monthly for lumps and have a regular mammogram as recommended by your doctor. But do you know what your breast density is, and how it can make these activities more difficult to do?

What Is Breast Density?

Breast density is simply a way of describing the different types of tissue that make up your breasts. 

Each woman has breasts with milk ducts, glandular tissue, fat and connective tissue. If your breasts are primarily composed of glandular tissue -- also called lobules, which produce milk when you are nursing -- or connective tissue, then they are more "dense." Breasts that have more fat are considered less dense.

You typically don't know how dense your breast tissue is, unless you've had a mammogram and the technician or your doctor has mentioned that you have high density breast tissue. You won't know simply by how firm they feel.

Are Women With Higher Density Breast Tissue More Likely to Get Cancer?

It does seem more likely that women with high density breast tissue will develop cancer -- in fact, it's up to 6 times more likely. But that's not necessarily because of the tissue makeup of the breast. It may have more to do with the difficulty of seeing abnormalities easily on a traditional mammogram.

Regular mammograms show dense tissue -- the glandular and connective tissue -- as being white. The problem is that tumors or masses also appear white, and don't show up well until they are larger. So for women with more fatty tissue, which looks black on a mammogram, unusual lumps or masses that show as white are much easier to see, even when they are small.

Traditionally, women with dense breast tissue could just keep their fingers crossed that they didn't have any tumors that weren't appearing on a mammogram. Or, they could ask their doctors for a magnetic resonating image (MRI) or ultrasound, but those are expensive procedures that aren't usually covered by medical insurance.

What is 3D Mammography?

The relatively new process of 3D mammography, also called tomosynthesis, can create a more detailed image of the breast that shows each layer of tissue. It's less invasive than an MRI and more detailed than an ultrasound, plus it generally carries a smaller price tag.

The process works by taking x-rays of small slices of the breast from various angles and using computer software to piece it all together into one image. Because the image displays smaller areas of the breast, it can help a trained radiologist or doctor to identify unusual lumps or tumors with less difficulty. 

Can 3D Mammography Better Show Lumps in Dense Breast Tissue?

When doctors use 3D mammograms along with traditional 2D digital mammograms, they are able to increase detection of cancerous breast tumors by as much as 40 percent. Plus, there's a 15 percent decrease in false positives that require additional testing.

If your doctor does not offer 3D mammograms routinely, you may wish to ask about having the test done, especially if you've been told that your breast tissue is especially dense. The combination of a traditional and a 3D mammogram may detect tumors earlier than a 2D test alone. Visit to learn more.