Breast calcifications are small calcium deposits that develop in a woman's breast tissue. They are very common and are usually benign (noncancerous). In some instances, certain types of breast calcifications may suggest early breast cancer.
There are two types of breast calcifications: macrocalcifications and microcalcifications.
By Amy Engeler
At 3 a.m., with all the houses dark up and down her winding suburban street in West Warwick, Rhode Island, Jo-Ann Frey, 37, lights a candle so she can see well enough to dust her furniture. Careful not to turn on any lights or make noise that might wake up her family, she drifts from room to room with her candle and cleaning supplies, waiting until she feels sleepy enough to climb back into bed. That feeling doesn't come -- and when she hears the alarm in the bedroom go off...
Macrocalcifications look like large white dots on a mammogram (breast X-ray) and are often dispersed randomly within the breast. Macrocalcifications are common -- they are found in approximately half of women over age 50, and one in 10 women under age 50 -- and are considered noncancerous.
Microcalcifications are small calcium deposits that look like white specks on a mammogram. Microcalcifications are usually not a result of cancer. But if they appear in certain patterns and are clustered together, they may be a sign of precancerous cells or early breast cancer.
How do I know if I have breast calcifications?
Breast calcifications do not cause symptoms, as they are too small to be felt during a routine breast exam. Usually, breast calcifications are first noticed on a mammogram.
What causes breast calcifications?
A number of factors can cause calcification in a woman's breast, including normal aging, inflammation, and past trauma to the area. Calcium from your diet does not cause breast calcifications.
What happens if my doctor finds breast calcifications on my mammogram?
If you have macrocalcifications, no further testing or treatment is needed because they are not harmful. If microcalcifications are seen on your mammogram, another mammogram may be performed to get a more detailed look at the area in question. The calcifications will be determined to be either "benign," "probably benign," or "suspicious."
How are breast calcifications treated?
''Benign'' calcifications are considered harmless. No further evaluation or treatment is needed.
''Probably benign'' calcifications have a less than 2% risk of being cancer. In other words, more than 98% of the time "probably benign" calcifications are not cancer. Typically, they will be monitored every six months for at least one year. After a year of follow-up, and assuming no new changes are found, your doctor will recommend you have a routine mammogram once a year.
''Suspicious'' calcifications may be benign or an early sign of cancer; therefore, your doctor may recommend you have a biopsy. During a biopsy, a small amount of breast tissue containing the calcification is removed and sent to a laboratory to be examined for cancer cells. If cancer is present, treatment may consist of surgery to remove the cancerous breast, radiation, and/or chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
What happens during a breast biopsy?
Two types of biopsies are used to remove breast calcification tissue for further study, including stereotactic core needle biopsy and surgical biopsy.
Core needle biopsy: Under local anesthesia (the area is numbed, but you are awake) a radiologist, using a thin, hollow needle and guided by a computer imaging device, will remove a small piece of tissue containing the suspicious calcifications.
Surgical biopsy: If tissue cannot be successfully removed using a core needle biopsy or the results are unclear, surgery may be needed to get a sample of the calcified breast tissue. A surgeon will perform the biopsy in an operating room under local or general anesthesia. Prior to the surgical procedure, a radiologist will use X-rays to identify the calcified breast tissue and will then mark the tissue to be removed -- with either a thin wire or with dye. A surgeon will then cut the tissue sample so that it can be sent to a lab for analysis.
If you have breast calcifications, talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have.