Mammography uses X-rays to create images of the breast. These images are called mammograms.
Learn more about mammograms.
Learn about getting a mammogram.
Like other X-ray images, mammograms appear in shades of black, gray and white, depending on the density of the tissue (see images below).
Very dense tissue, like bone, shows up as white on an X-ray. Fat looks dark gray on an X-ray.
Breast cancer and some benign (not cancer) breast conditions are denser than fat and appear a lighter shade of gray or white on a mammogram.
Dense breast tissue can look light gray or white on a mammogram, making the mammogram harder to read.
Since younger women tend to have denser breasts than older women, their mammograms can be harder to read.
After menopause, breast density decreases, making mammograms easier to read.
The mammograms below show a range of breast density. Some breasts are mostly fat (fatty breast) and some breasts are mostly breast tissue (dense breast).
Breast density decreases after menopause. This is true for women who go through natural menopause and younger women who are in menopause after surgery to remove the ovaries (oophorectomy).
For women who use menopausal hormone therapy (MHT), breast density may not decrease until they stop using MHT.
Women with dense breasts (as seen on a mammogram) have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with fatty breasts [18-19].
Learn more about breast density and breast cancer risk.
Today, there are no special recommendations or breast cancer screening guidelines for women with dense breasts.
Breast ultrasound and breast MRI (each combined with mammography) are being studied to learn whether they improve detection in women with dense breasts compared to mammography alone.
Many states in the U.S. have laws requiring health care providers to notify (send a letter to) women found to have dense breasts on a mammogram.
Although this may seem helpful, currently there are no special recommendations or screening guidelines for women with dense breasts. However, your provider may suggest other types of breast imaging.
If you have any concerns about your breast density or your risk of breast cancer, talk with your provider.
Komen’s statement on breast density legislation
Susan G. Komen® endorses federal legislation requiring mammography centers to report breast density information to physicians and patients. Komen believes this legislation will improve the written mammography results providers send to patients. It requires the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consult with leading cancer organizations (including Komen) in the development of standard wording for these patient reports.
The legislation also directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to focus research on improving breast cancer screening methods.
Learn more about Komen’s support for federal breast density legislation and other advocacy issues.
Some common benign breast conditions (such as cysts and fibroadenomas) may show up on mammograms as round or oval patches with distinct borders.
Learn more about benign breast conditions.
Calcifications are bits of calcium that can show up on mammograms as small, bright white spots.
Most calcifications are benign (not cancer). However, certain patterns of calcifications are suspicious and need more testing. Tight clusters or lines of tiny calcifications (microcalcifications) can be a sign of breast cancer.
Calcifications are common, especially after age 50 . They may be related to past injury to the breast or an infection in the breast tissue (called mastitis) .
For women treated for breast cancer in the past, calcifications may be related to past breast surgery or radiation therapy .
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a non-invasive breast cancer.
On a mammogram, DCIS usually looks like a cluster of microcalcifications. It can be hard to know from a mammogram image whether the cluster is DCIS or invasive breast cancer. (A cluster of microcalcifications can also be a benign (not cancer) finding on a mammogram.)
Learn about follow-up after an abnormal mammogram.
Learn more about DCIS.
Invasive breast cancer can appear as a white patch or mass on a mammogram.
The tumor cells don't stay within the clear borders of the mass, but instead invade the nearby breast tissue. The outer edges of these cells look fuzzy or spiky (called spiculated).
Most mammography centers report the results of mammograms using the Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS®).
BI-RADS® was developed by the American College of Radiology to provide a standard way to describe the findings on mammograms (with categories numbered 0 to 6).
Learn more about the BI-RADS® categories for mammography findings.
Some centers may give you the results of your mammogram at the time of your screening. With others, it may take up to 2 weeks to get your results.
If you don't get your results within 2 weeks, contact your health care provider or the mammography center.
Don’t assume the results were normal because you didn’t get a report. Follow-up to get your results.
*Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.
Facts for Life: Breast Calcifications
Facts for Life: Breast Density
Questions to Ask Your Doctor: Mammography