High breast density can lead to a woman being up to six times more likely to develop breast cancer, but what exactly is it?
In simple terms, what is breast density?
We use X-ray pictures of the breast, known as mammograms, to help us find cancers, but they can also be used to measure the density of a woman’s breast. The more X-rays a breast stops from passing through, the denser it is. We think increased breast density may be caused by changes in fibres called collagen, which form a scaffold supporting the structure of the breast.
How and why does breast density affect breast cancer risk?
We know that breast cancer risk is affected by age, family history and lifestyle factors such as obesity and smoking, but one of the strongest risk factors is having dense breasts. Our findings suggest that changes in the collagen scaffold which occur in dense breasts make cancers more likely to form. We’re still investigating the pathways that cause this to happen but it’s likely to be to do with the way that the cancer cells ‘feel’ the environment around them.
In your opinion, why is this such an important area of focus when it comes to preventing breast cancer?
Breast density is a key area of research focus because it can help us to predict which women are more likely to develop breast cancer. If we can identify women with dense breasts we can monitor them more closely so that if they do develop cancer, we can catch it as early as possible. In future we may also be able to use what we’ve learned about the structural changes that drive increased breast density to help develop new treatments that can prevent cancers from forming in dense breast tissue.
What is Prevent Breast Cancer currently doing in this field and what are the overall goals of such activity?
We’re currently studying post-menopausal women who are having mastectomy surgery for breast cancer at the Nightingale Centre at Wythenshawe Hospital. Surgeons there have been helping us collect breast tissue samples from both tumours and normal areas of their breast. We’re now looking at these samples with a range of techniques to help us to understand the changes that occur in dense breast tissue which may allow cancers to form. In the long term this will help us to more effectively predict which women are at risk of developing breast cancer and also to prevent cancers forming in these patients.
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Don’t forget to check out Dr James McConnell’s ‘Under the Microscope’ interview to learn more about his life and work at Prevent Breast Cancer.