Breast density and cancer risk
If, after having a mammogram, you were told by your physician that you have dense breasts, you might wonder exactly what that means. Breast density is simply a measure of the amount of non-fatty tissue in relation to the amount of fatty tissue within a breast.
Having dense breasts is common and not always a cause for concern, but it is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. About half of women up to age 40 have dense breast tissue, though it tends to decrease with age.
“Unfortunately, there is not one simple answer for why breast density is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and research is still being carried out to better explain this association,” says Dr Tamara Suaris.
Dr Suaris is a consultant radiologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and is particularly interested in finding a better early diagnosis experience for women with dense breast tissue.
A high demand for MRI
Mammograms are not as good at detecting breast cancer in dense breast tissue. Fatty breast tissue appears as a darker area, while dense tissue and cancerous tissue both appear white. Dense breast tissue can sometimes hide breast masses in a mammogram, making cancer more difficult to see.
Currently, national guidelines do not include the best screening test or follow up for women with dense breasts. These women may benefit from MRI or other tests, but there’s a high demand, which can lead to delays.
Improving the accuracy of cancer detection
Three years ago we awarded Dr Suaris a grant to research a technique called Contrast-enhanced Spectral Mammography (CESM). This method involves the injection of an x-ray dye into a vein before mammogram images are taken.
It improves the accuracy of identifying cancer in a mammogram for women with dense breast tissue. It is quick to perform and can provide an accurate diagnosis more quickly than the MRI route. Barts Health NHS Trust is one of only a few NHS trusts in the UK that offer this service.
“I am very grateful to Barts Charity for funding my research. Early diagnosis can save lives and I hope my research adds to the body of evidence for CESM.”Dr Tamara Suaris, consultant radiologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital
The future of breast cancer care
Breast Cancer has long been a priority for Barts Health due to the poorer outcomes experienced by women in East London compared to the rest of the UK. This is why we are fundraising for a new Breast Cancer Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Our ambition is to centralise surgical services alongside other breast cancer services at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women in the UK today, and over 80% of breast cancer patients need surgery as part of their treatment. By bringing expertise together in one place we could significantly improve surgical outcomes and experience for patients.
As well as improving breast cancer outcomes for patients today, it will also help make a significant contribution to global research, saving lives for generations.
This project is one of two projects which make up the Barts 900 Campaign, which centres around the celebration of St Bartholomew’s Hospital’s 900th anniversary in 2023. The Barts 900 Campaign is an opportunity to accelerate our vision for the future of healthcare in East London by building two world-class facilities: the new Breast Cancer Centre, as well as a new Clinical Research Facility at The Royal London Hospital.