Introduction: Mammographic density is a strong, independent risk factor for breast cancer. A critical unanswered question is whether cancers tend to arise in mammographically dense tissue (i.e. are densities directly related to risk or are they simply a marker of risk). This question cannot be addressed by studying invasive tumors because they manifest as densities and cannot be confidently differentiated from the densities representing fibrous and glandular tissue. We addressed this question by studying ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), as revealed by microcalcifications.
Method: We studied the cranio-caudal and the mediolateral-oblique mammograms of 28 breasts with a solitary DCIS lesion. Two experienced radiologists independently judged whether the DCIS occurred in a mammographically dense area, and determined the density of different areas of the mammograms.
Results: It was not possible to determine whether the DCIS was or was not in a dense area for six of the tumors. Of the remaining 22 lesions, 21 occurred in dense tissue (test for difference from expected taken as the percentage of density of the 'mammographic quadrant' containing DCIS; P < 0.0001). A preponderance of DCIS (17 out of 28) occurred in the mammographic quadrant with the highest percentage density.
Conclusion: DCIS occurs overwhelmingly in the mammographically dense areas of the breast, and pre-DCIS mammograms showed that this relationship was not brought about by the presence of the DCIS. This strongly suggests that some aspect of stromal tissue comprising the mammographically dense tissue directly influences the carcinogenic process in the local breast glandular tissue.