In 2011, breast cancer represents the most common serious cancer of women in the United States, with over 200,000 new cases diagnosed every year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Regularly performed breast examination and screening mammograms are important steps to improve early cancer detection. Calcium deposits, or calcifications, in your breast are a common finding on mammograms and can indicate either benign or cancerous changes.
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Breast Cancer Screening
A woman’s risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, family history of breast or ovarian cancer, hormonal status, childbirth history, obesity and prior breast abnormalities. Screening for breast disease in healthy women helps discover cancer earlier and improve treatment outcomes. Mammograms are special x-rays of the breast used both for screening and further evaluation of changes found on physical examination. Common abnormal x-ray findings include cysts, masses or lumps, dense fibrous tissue and various patterns of calcification. The radiologist interpreting your mammogram will classify changes as negative, benign, suspicious or highly suggestive of malignancy, or cancer.
Many mammograms show at least some type of calcium deposits in the breast. These can develop with breast tissue breakdown or growth changes, but are unrelated to your diet or calcium supplements. Most calcifications do not indicate cancer, but may require additional testing to further characterize them. A radiologist will evaluate any calcifications for size, shape, number and distribution, plus compare them to any available previous mammograms for changes. Benign, or non-cancerous, calcifications often appear with increasing age, fibrocystic changes, fibroadenomas, after breast injury, in cyst fluids and a variety of other conditions.
Calcium Deposits in Breast Cancer
Although most breast calcifications do not indicate cancer, the majority of breast cancers do contain some calcium on mammogram. Different patterns of calcification vary from completely benign in appearance to highly reliable indicators of cancer. Calcifications indicative of cancer tend to be abundant, small but variable in size and shape, and occur in irregular clusters or linear and branching patterns. Increased numbers of calcifications when compared to earlier mammograms can also raise concern for cancer. Careful evaluation by one or more radiologists, along with evidence of any mass, dense areas or tissue growth changes all contribute to the final interpretation of mammograms and recommendations for follow-up.
Follow-Up of Suspicious Calcifications
If you have a suspicious finding on mammogram, such as atypical calcifications, a variety of different tests can be performed for further evaluation. Simply obtaining slightly different or magnified mammogram views might suffice, or a different method of examining the breast tissue such as ultrasound or MRI examination can be tried. Depending on your other risk factors and findings on physical examination, a biopsy to remove any breast tissue containing suspicious calcifications might be performed to evaluate the presence or absence of cancer. Good communication between you and your health care provider is critical to successful early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.