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The one thing that increased this woman’s risk of breast cancer by five times

“I’ve had comments at mammograms before like, ‘Oh, you’ve got dense breasts’, but I didn’t know the impact it could have.”

Photo: Supplied

As a woman you’re constantly told to get to know your breasts, so you can tell if a new lump arises. Routine mammograms are encouraged for all women over 50, and all women, regardless of family history have access to free mammograms over the age of 40. So breast cancer awareness and detection facilities in Australia have certainly come a long way.

But, recent research has revealed that there is a new factor affecting your breasts, which can increase your risk of cancer by four to five times and also make malignant tumours difficult to detect on a mammogram.

It’s called breast density, and according to a Pink Hope consumer survey 83.6 per cent of women don’t know or are unsure if they have dense breasts. This was the case for 32-year-old Emma Scrimshaw, who found a lump in her breast 12 years ago.

Aged just 20, finding a lump was a bit confronting.

“I felt a lump and had one surgery to take it out and have it tested. I suppose in my mind I thought that was the hard part over,” Emma tells myBody+Soul.

While luckily Emma’s tumour was benign, her dense breast tissue would make it difficult to detect if the tumour suddenly turned malignant. She would have to have another surgery to make sure there wasn’t any tumour cells left.

“So initially hearing that it was a tumour and then that I’d have to have another surgery to scrape the area of cells that might be left; it was quite devastating,” Emma says.

In 28 states throughout America (56 per cent of the country) it’s been mandatory to notify patients that they have dense breasts since 2005. But in Australia there is no requirement for radiologists to report breast density, even though it heightens the risk of cancer.

Before her surgery, Emma had only heard the term in passing and was unaware of the risks.

“I didn’t know what breast density meant before my surgery. I’ve had comments at mammograms before like, ‘Oh, you’ve got dense breasts’, but I didn’t know the impact it could have.”

The surgeries ended up being a wise preventative measure as Emma later tested positive to the BRCA2 gene mutation, which further heightens her risk of breast cancer. She also has a strong family history of breast cancer, with her mum, aunty and grandmother all diagnosed.

It was a bit of a slap in the face when Emma learned about ‘breast density’ because it was a risk factor she had never considered.

“Reading the recent research, it is very confronting to know that it wasn’t something I’d been sat down and told about. It was something I knew about but hadn’t had a conversation about,” she says.

If you’re wondering what exactly breast density means, essentially breasts are made up of different tissue – fibrous, glandular and fatty. If the majority of your breast is fibrous or glandular tissue, your breasts are considered dense. It is estimated that more than two million Australian women have dense breasts.

Women with dense breasts are four to five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with less dense breasts. Fibrous and glandular tissue appears white on a mammogram, while breast cancers also appear white, meaning that a high density breast can hide or mask a cancer, making early detection more difficult.

These days, Emma stays on top of her high risk by getting annual MRIs, mammograms and physical checks.

I certainly am apprehensive and just wanting to get the test over with,” she says. “I’m always very diligent in making sure I go for my annual tests,” the Brisbane local says.

Having the opportunity to continually check up on her wellness gives Emma the mental space to do the things she loves – which include dining out, socialising with mates, running in the park and enjoying life with her partner and pet bird.

“While, yes, I am sometimes apprehensive, I have the peace of mind in knowing that I am doing everything I can and that we’ve got onto it early.”

Take Pink Hope’s Know You Risk online test now.

Today Show host Lisa Wilkinson underwent a mammogram live on air this morning. Courtesy Channel Nine.

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