Jill Goodacre is educating the world on what it means to have “dense breasts”

Although she has been dealing with breast cancer for five years, actress and model Jill Goodacre just made her health news public with husband Harry Connick Jr. on October 25th. By coming forward, she’s using her platform to inform people about facts they may not know about breast health — including that having dense breasts can impact how you detect breast cancer.

The 53-year-old former Victoria’s Secret model explained to People that she had her annual mammogram in 2012. Everything looked clear, but since she had dense breasts, she was also sent to have a sonogram. A “suspicious spot” was detected during the sonogram and after a biopsy, doctors discovered she had stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. She had to have a lumpectomy, followed by radiation. And now she has been in remission for nearly five years.

But why did the density of her breasts lead her to have a sonogram that ended up detecting her cancer? And what exactly are dense breasts?

As People describes it:

"Breast density is a measure of how much of the breast is made of fatty tissue, and how much is comprised of glands, ducts, and other non-fatty, fibrous tissue. Dense breasts contain less fatty tissue."

You can’t tell by feeling your breasts whether they are dense or not — only a mammogram can tell, since fatty breast tissue appears dark while dense breast tissue appears white.

Since tumors also appear white on mammograms, it’s harder to see when dense breasts have an abnormal growth, which means cancer may be more likely to go undetected.

Mayo Clinic notes that having dense breasts is fairly common — about half of women have them. Breast density depends on a number of factors, including age.

Even though doctors don’t know why, dense breasts are thought to have a higher risk of some types of cancer, according to a 2011 study by Harvard Medical School. However, a 2015 study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine showed that only half of women with dense breasts are at a higher risk, so having dense breasts is not necessarily reason to worry.

Still, many states have legislation when it comes to breast density. According to the American Society of Breast Surgeons Foundation, 31 states “have laws requiring women to be notified of their breast density on their mammograms.” false

While all women should take care of their breast health, women with dense breasts may need to go through additional testing, like Goodacre, to detect cancer. Since all tests have their own risks and benefits, you should speak with your health care provider about the best way for you to proceed.

Breast density has been a topic of breast health for a long time, but by opening up about her own cancer, Goodacre might have just helped save someone else’s life.