In the latest issue of PEOPLE, Jill Goodacre, a former Victoria’s Secret model and the wife of recording artist and talk show host Harry Connick Jr., opened up about her breast cancer diagnosis five years ago this month. When a routine mammogram came back clear, she was sent for additional testing, Goodacre recalls: “They said, ‘Okay, looks good. Since you have dense breasts, just go across the hall for your sonogram.’” The ultrasound detected a suspicious spot; and after a biopsy, the 53-year-old mom of three learned she had stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. Today Goodacre is approaching five years in remission.
So what does it mean to have dense breasts—and can dense breasts raise your risk of cancer? Breast density is a measure of how much of the breast is made of fatty tissue, and how much is comprised of glands, ducts, and other non-fatty, fibrous tissue. Dense breasts contain less fatty tissue.
While that sounds relatively straightforward, it can be tricky to determine if you have dense breasts. (You can’t feel dense breast tissue.) Doctors can only tell on a mammogram. Fatty breast tissue appears dark, while denser tissue looks white.
Tumors also appear white on mammograms, which is why it’s easier for cancer to go undetected if you have dense breasts. Having dense breasts is also thought to slightly increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, though experts haven’t yet figured out why exactly.
For those reasons, experts have historically recommended that women with dense breasts get additional screening after a mammogram, such as an ultrasound or MRI. Newer research suggests, however, that many women with dense breasts might not need those extra tests. According to the National Cancer Institute, other risk factors for breast cancer should be taken into consideration before sending a woman for additional screening.
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You can have dense breast tissue at any age, although breasts typically lose density as a woman gets older. Don’t worry too much if you have dense breasts–about half of women do! Just make sure you talk to your doctor about any family history of breast cancer, other risk factors, and the best method of screening for you. And be sure to become familiar with how your breasts normally feel so you can detect any changes that crop up.
Goodacre needed two surgeries, radiation, and treatment with tamoxifen, a type of hormone therapy that reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence in some patients. “The doctors all say that after the five-year mark, things look optimistic,” she told People, “so we’re starting to feel pretty good.”