During a mammogram, your doctor may detect small deposits of calcium in your breast tissue called breast calcifications. According to one study, these are found in an estimated
Learn about the types and causes of breast calcifications, and when your doctor may want to conduct further testing to rule out cancer.
There are numerous causes for calcium deposits in the breasts, including:
- ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a type of early-stage breast cancer that starts in the ducts
- invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), a more aggressive breast cancer that has spread from the ducts to breast tissues
- breast cysts
- fibroadenomas, small benign growths in the breast
- previous breast infections
- calcium buildup in blood vessels from atherosclerosis
- breast surgery
- previous radiation therapy
One 2015 study also revealed the possibility of calcifications developing after breast-conserving surgery and radiotherapy for breast cancer. However, these calcifications — which were not biopsied — were considered benign.
Breast calcifications don’t typically cause symptoms. Instead, they are incidental findings during a mammogram.
However, see your doctor if you’re experiencing unusual breast symptoms that could indicate an underlying condition, such as an infection or cancer. These symptoms include:
- lumps or bumps around your breast or underarm
- chronically itchy skin
- red or inflamed skin
- breast skin that’s puckered, dimpled, or scaly
- nipple discharge or changes, such as inversion
Breast calcifications may be seen on a mammogram. These white spots that appear are actually small pieces of calcium that have been deposited in your breast tissue.
Most calcifications are benign, which means they’re noncancerous. If they aren’t benign, they may be the first sign of precancer or early breast cancer. Your doctor will want to investigate further if calcifications are found in certain patterns associated with cancer.
There are two kinds of calcification based on their size:
These are very small deposits (less than 0.5 millimeters each) of calcium that look like tiny white dots or grains of sand on a mammogram. They’re most often benign, but they can be a sign of early breast cancer. Your doctor may recommend a biopsy for macrocalcifications that are deemed suspicious.
These are larger deposits of calcium (more than 0.5 mm each) that look like large white dots on a mammogram. They’re frequently caused by benign conditions, such as:
- past injury
- changes that come with aging
Despite their larger size, macrocalcifications aren’t typically biopsied since they’re primarily caused by benign changes to the breast.
Breast calcifications aren’t painful or big enough to be felt during a breast exam, whether through a self-exam or by your doctor. They’re usually first noticed on a routine mammogram screening.
Often when calcifications are seen, you’ll have another mammogram that magnifies the area of calcification and provides a more detailed picture. This gives the radiologist more information to determine if the calcifications are benign or not.
If you have previous mammogram results available, the radiologist will compare them with the most recent one to see if the calcifications have been there for a while or if they’re new. If they’re old, they’ll check for changes over time that might make them more likely to be cancer.
Once they obtain all the information, the radiologist will use the size, shape, and pattern to determine if the calcifications are benign, probably benign, or suspicious.
Almost all macrocalcifications and most microcalcifications are determined to be benign. No further testing or treatment is needed for benign calcifications. Your doctor will check them on your yearly mammogram to watch for changes that may suggest cancer.
These calcifications are benign more than 98 percent of the time. Your doctor will monitor them for changes that could suggest cancer. Usually you’ll get a repeat mammogram every 6 months for a minimum of 2 years. Unless the calcifications change, you’ll then go back to having annual mammograms.
High-risk calcifications are microcalcifications found in a pattern that’s suspicious for cancer, such as a tight, irregularly shaped cluster or a line. Your doctor will usually recommend further evaluation with a biopsy.
During a biopsy, a small piece of the tissue with calcifications is removed and looked at under a microscope. This is the only way to confirm the diagnosis of breast cancer.
The majority of breast calcifications are notcancerous and they won’t turn into cancer. Instead, your doctor will try to figure out if the underlying cause is cancerous or not.
If your breast calcifications are considered benign, your doctor may still recommend regular follow-up mammograms to keep an eye on possible changes.
In some cases, your doctor will recommend further imaging tests for calcifications, as well as a possible biopsy. This is especially the case if clusters of calcifications are found in one area of the breast only.
Since DCIS or IDC are possible causes of breast calcifications, your doctor may want to rule these breast cancers out as well. Keep in mind that most breast calcifications aren’t malignant.
Although they may indicate cancer is present, breast calcifications are not cancer and don’t turn into cancer.
Breast calcifications determined to be benign don’t need any more tests. They don’t need to be treated or removed.
If the calcifications are potentially a sign of cancer, a biopsy is obtained. If cancer is found, your doctor
- chemotherapy, which are medications used to kill cancer cells that come in pill (oral) or intravenous (IV) form
- radiation therapy, which uses radiation rays similar to X-rays to directly target cancer cells
- surgery to remove cancerous tumors and surrounding tissues that may be impacted
- hormone therapy medications to prevent cancer cells from growing further
- biological/targeted therapy, which targets cancer cell receptors to prevent further growth
Most breast calcifications are benign. These calcifications are harmless and require no further testing or treatment. When calcifications are determined to be suspicious for cancer, it’s important that a biopsy is done to see if cancer is present.
Breast cancer found due to suspicious calcifications seen on a mammogram is usually precancer or early cancer. Because it’s typically caught early, there’s a good chance that appropriate treatment will be successful.