Occasionally, deposits of calcium can build up within the tissue of the breast. These small buildups are undetectable by manual breast exams but can be seen as microcalcifications on a mammogram. While these accumulations can be an indication of breast cancer, they are often quite benign.
While early stage breast cancer may be considered, there are several more common and less serious causes of breast calcifications. Most commonly, microcalcifications on a mammogram can be linked to a healing injury of the breast. In some cases, milk ducts in the breast can thicken and become clogged, resulting in calcification. Similarly, mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue, can also cause an abnormal mammogram result.
When examining microcalcifications on a mammogram, physicians look at their size, shape, and groupings. Larger deposits of calcium salts are called macrocalcifications. These are normally painless and harmless. Unless these breast calcifications cause discomfort, no further treatment is required.
Mammograms that show small, round white dots scattered throughout the breast are common and generally do not cause concern. White specks that are flat or otherwise oddly shaped are more troubling. Situations when these irregularly shaped accumulations are densely gathered may indicate the early presence of breast cancer.
Even when microcalcifications on a mammogram cause concern, the presence of breast cancer is often ruled out by subsequent mammograms that focus specifically on the areas of calcification. Additional testing, including ultrasound imagery and blood tests, may be ordered. In instances where the presence of breast cancer is strongly suspected, a biopsy may be performed.
Fortunately, even when breast cancer is determined to be the cause of microcalcifications on a mammogram, the prognosis is very good. When breast cancer is diagnosed in this early stage of development, it is normally called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). In essence, this means that the cancer is very localized and often quite treatable.
Most women with DCIS need to have only the affected area of the breast removed. This minor surgery, called a lumpectomy, requires little recovery time. In addition, this procedure has little to no effect on the appearance of the breast. Radiation therapy is often suggested to insure that the cancer has been completely eradicated.
Without improvements in mammography technology, the discovery of DCIS would be nearly impossible. Historically, breast cancer was generally only discoverable after it became so large as to be felt by physical examination. Unfortunately, by this point, treatment was difficult, and successful recovery normally came at the price of one or both breasts. As such, the arrival of equipment sensitive enough to detect breast calcifications is a major advantage in fight against breast cancer. Women are encouraged to make use of this advantage by scheduling regular mammograms as part of their health care regimens.