High breast density has been linked to a potentially increased risk of breast cancer, and it can also make cancer harder to detect on a mammogram. However, a new study suggests that people with low breast density may not actually have the better lot in life after all.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that breast cancer patients with lower breast density ratings were more likely to develop severe lymphedema.

Researchers believe that their findings may help doctors predict their patients’ risk of developing severe lymphedema before starting breast cancer treatment. They used a multivariate linear regression model that combines density with other known risk factors to predict the development of lymphedema. The model can ultimately provide estimates of lymphedema severity.

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“Predictions of lymphedema occurrence and morbidity can help triage patients for increased disease monitoring and thus allow for earlier diagnosis and optimal management of this condition,” the authors wrote. “Such predictions also can assist in risk stratification in future clinical trials on novel therapeutic interventions for lymphedema.”

The research team analyzed 373 cancer patients with an average age of 52.3 years. Each of them had already completed curative treatment for an initial breast cancer diagnosis, but some were undergoing follow-up treatments.

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“This study identified 5 readily available clinical factors, including patient, cancer, and treatment factors, that can be used to generate volumetric estimates of lymphedema severity in patients with breast cancer,” the study authors wrote. “To our knowledge, this study is the first to use mammographic breast density as an independent prognostic factor for lymphedema risk and to provide volumetric estimates of lymphedema morbidity.”

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“This model underscores that lymphedema is a multifactorial disease involving patient, cancer, and treatment factors,” wrote the researchers. “To our knowledge, this study is the first to not only report the use of diagnostic mammographic breast density as a prognostic factor for lymphedema risk but also provide volumetric estimates of lymphedema severity.”

Some limitations of this study include its retrospective nature and missing data. However, one of the study’s strengths was that all patients were receiving care at the same medical facility, so their care was provided fairly uniformly, and information was recorded the same way across the board. We look forward to seeing more research on this topic to corroborate its results.

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