This information explains what breast calcifications are and how they are diagnosed. We hope this information answers your questions. If you have any further questions, you can ask your doctor or nurse at the hospital where you're having treatment.
Breast calcifications are small areas of calcium in the breast. They can't be felt and usually show up on a breast x ray (mammogram). Calcifications are very common, and in most cases they are harmless. There are two types:
These are coarse calcium deposits in the breast. They look like large white dots or dashes on a mammogram. Macrocalcifications are a natural result of breast ageing and are harmless. They are not linked with cancer and don't need any treatment or checking.
They are found in about half of all women over the age of 50, and in about 1 in 10 (10%) of younger women. They may be caused by calcium deposits in a cyst or in milk ducts as women get older, or as a result of previous injuries or inflammation. Calcium in the diet does not cause calcifications to form.
These are tiny calcium deposits that show up as fine white specks on a mammogram. They are usually found in an area of the breast where cells are being replaced more quickly than normal.
Microcalcifications are not usually due to cancer. But sometimes a group of microcalcifications seen together in one area (a cluster) may be a sign of pre-cancerous changes or early breast cancer.
If calcifications are seen on a mammogram
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If your mammogram shows that there are calcifications, a person who specialises in reading x-rays and scans (radiologist) will look at the size, shape and pattern of calcifications. They will then decide if any further tests are needed.
If only macrocalcifications are found, you won’t need any treatment. If microcalcifications are found, you will usually be asked to have a close-up mammogram of the affected area.
If the results of this mammogram show the changes are clearly not cancer (benign), you won’t need to have any more tests or investigations.
If the results are uncertain, you’ll be advised to have a small sample of tissue taken (biopsy) for examination under a microscope. This gives your doctor more information to help them make an accurate diagnosis.
You’ll have a breast biopsy done in the breast clinic or an x-ray department. Your doctor or nurse will explain more about the type of biopsy you will have.
Before the biopsy is taken, the doctor will numb the area where the tissue is to be removed with local anaesthetic. You may feel some discomfort or pressure during the biopsy but only for a short time.
Your breast may be bruised and feel sore for a few days afterwards. You can take painkillers until this eases off and any bruising should go away within a couple of weeks.
Needle (core) biopsy
Your doctor will gently put a needle into the area of calcification to remove a small piece of tissue. They will do this using an ultrasound or a mammogram, which show pictures of the breast, to help guide the biopsy needle to the area of calcification.
Vacuum-assisted biopsy (VAB)
The doctor will place a needle into the area of calcification guided by an ultrasound or mammogram. When the needle is in position, a vacuum gently draws and removes some breast tissue into a small collecting chamber.
Wire guided biopsy
This may be done when a needle (core) biopsy hasn’t removed enough of the calcification, or when the biopsy result is not clear. The doctor inserts a thin wire into the breast - using an ultrasound or a mammogram to guide it – to mark the position of the calcification. The wire is kept in place with a dressing. You will have a small operation and the surgeon will remove the area of calcification. You may have this done under a local or general anaesthetic.
Most microcalcifications are shown by a biopsy to be non-cancerous (benign). If this is the case, you won’t need any treatment.
If cancer cells are found, it is usually a non-invasive breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or a very small, early breast cancer. Both these can be treated very successfully.
It’s natural to feel worried if you’re told you have breast calcifications and need further tests. But it’s important to remember most breast calcifications are not a sign of cancer.
If the biopsy results show that there is an early breast cancer the surgeon or breast care nurse will explain more about this. They will talk to you about the treatment you need and give you support to help you to cope.
If you have any concerns it’s important to discuss these with the doctor or breast nurse at the clinic, you can also talk to one of our cancer support specialists.
This information has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
Farshid G et al. Independent predictors of breast malignancy in screen-detected microcalcifications: biopsy results in 2545 cases. 2011. British Journal of Cancer: (11):1669-75
Early and localised breast cancer: Diagnosis and treatment. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). February 2009.
Bland, Copeland. The Breast: Comprehensive Management of Benign and Malignant Disease. 4th edition. Saunders. 2009.
With thanks to Professor Stephen Johnston, Consultant Medical Oncologist, and the people affected by cancer who reviewed this edition.