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Dense breast tissue can hinder breast cancer detection

Many women diligently perform monthly breast self-exams. They’re looking for the slightest aberration so they can seek medical care in a timely fashion.

Woman doing self-breast exam

But what happens when your intention to seek out those deviations from the norm are blocked by the overall density of your breast tissue?

Recently, children’s book author Judy Blume, who had received a breast cancer diagnosis after getting an ultrasound, underscored that her dense breast tissue had made her cancer impossible to detect through either a physical exam or mammogram. Simply put, dense breast tissue literally blocks the view, which is why ultrasound is the better detection option for women who have dense breasts.

Causes of dense breast tissue

It’s not a surprising question: Why do some women have dense breast tissue and what can women do about it?

Hormones: Hormones are a significant factor in many breast-related conditions. Young women have more circulating hormones; therefore, their breast tissue is typically dense. That’s because breast tissue contains estrogen receptors, a destination for circulating estrogen. When the liver can’t break down the body’s excess estrogen, then the risk of estrogen-related breast cancer increases.

Fat: Fat also plays a role in breast density. Because estrogen loves fat, pre-menopausal women who are overweight are generally more at risk for breast cancer because their fat stores are greater than in women of normal weight. And fat stores in the breast will attract estrogen.

Environment: Even slim pre-menopausal women who ingest more estrogen than normal through the environment – or through estrogen-mimickers in products, including skincare, cosmetic and plastic items – are also at risk for denser breasts, if their livers are not helping rid the body of these substances.

Menopause: Post-menopausal women produce only a small amount of hormones through their adrenals. These hormones are converted, in the fat cells, to estrogen and progesterone. However, post-menopausal women’s livers, which have often become more toxic over many years, may similarly not be up to the task of breaking down even the small amount of circulating estrogen in their systems. Hormone replacement therapy can also increase breast density.

Solutions to dense breast tissue

The good news is that a woman with dense breast tissue and too much circulating estrogen can help improve her condition. Here are four potential remedies and suggestions I give my patients.

Eliminate coffee and caffeine

Coffee contains methylxanthine. Chocolate contains theobromine. Both substances, derived from xanthine, are stimulants that are associated with creating fibrous tissue in the breast. By going cold turkey off these two items for several days, a woman can determine whether her breast tissue is sensitive to either coffee or chocolate.

Go easy on red meat

Unless you buy certified organic meat, you don’t know what hormone-related feed the animal has ingested. Also, too much fat congests the liver which, in turn, prevents the liver from breaking down estrogens and other substances.

Try iodine

If a patient has dense breasts, I often suggest a small daily amount of iodine — between 150 and 300 mcg — from an OTC brand. (This iodine supplement is not the first-aid iodine which you put on wounds.)  Iodine helps support thyroid hormone production which, in turn, can decrease estrogen stimulation of breast tissue. I also encourage my patients to eat seaweed, which is an iodine-rich food.

Eat cruciferous vegetables

Broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and cauliflower all contain indole-3-carbinol, a compound that helps the liver break down estrogen into more benign components. The detoxifying qualities of these cruciferous vegetables make them an excellent choice for women with dense breasts.

More on breast cancer

Breast cancer in numbers: Get the facts
Breast cancer tips every woman should know
Quick guide to breast cancer screening

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