What are breast calcifications?
Breast calcifications are small spots of calcium salts. They can occur anywhere in the breast tissue. They are very small, so you won’t be able to feel them, and they don’t cause any pain.
Breast calcifications are mostly benign (not cancer). However, sometimes calcifications can be an early sign of breast cancer. Because of this, your doctors may want you to have further tests to check what sort of calcifications you have.
Breast calcifications are very common and usually develop naturally as the breast tissue ages. Sometimes they form because of other changes in the breast, such as a fibroadenoma or breast cyst (benign breast conditions). They can also form if you’ve had an infection in, or injury to, the breast, or if you’ve had surgery or a breast implant.
Breast calcifications that develop in the blood vessels of the breast may be age-related or caused by other medical conditions such as heart problems or diabetes, but don’t usually require further assessment.
How are they found?
Breast calcifications are usually found by chance during a routine screening mammogram (breast x-ray) or during an investigation at a breast clinic for another breast problem. The calcification shows up as small white spots.
When you have a mammogram, it’s looked at by one or two radiologists (doctors who specialise in the use of imaging to diagnose and treat disease). They look carefully at the shape, size and pattern of the calcifications on the x-ray. They will categorise the calcifications as benign looking, indeterminate (uncertain) or suspicious of being cancer.
What happens next?
If your calcifications look benign, nothing more needs to be done; they don’t need to be removed and won’t cause you any harm.
If your calcifications look indeterminate or suspicious you will need further tests. In many cases, a mammogram may not give the radiologists enough information. The mammogram may not be clear or they may wish to check a certain area more carefully. This doesn’t mean that something is wrong; further tests will give your doctors more information to help them make an accurate diagnosis.
Further tests are likely to include a more detailed mammogram which gives a close-up (magnified) picture of the affected area.
You may also have a core biopsy (removal of tissue to be looked at under a microscope), which uses a needle to remove samples of breast tissue under local anaesthetic. Because calcifications are so small, a computer and mammogram are usually used to locate them accurately so a biopsy can be taken from the area concerned (stereotactic core biopsy).
Another type of biopsy you may be offered is a vacuum-assisted biopsy. This is a way of removing the calcification without having surgery. Using a mammogram as a guide, small amounts of breast tissue are sucked up through a needle until the calcification is seen to disappear.
A small metal clip may be left in the breast to mark the site of the calcifications following a biopsy, in case further surgery is needed. This clip can be left in the breast safely if no surgery is necessary.
These tests are usually done in the breast clinic or x-ray department as an outpatient, although sometimes they are done in the day surgery unit. You won’t have to stay overnight in hospital.
Your doctors may recommend surgery to remove the area of the calcification from the breast so it can be looked at under a microscope. In this case a technique called wire localisation is often used to pinpoint the area if it can’t be felt. The radiologist uses a mammogram or ultrasound scan as a guide to insert a fine wire into the breast under local anaesthetic. The wire is then carefully secured under a small dressing and left in place until the operation to remove the area of calcification, which is usually the same day or sometimes the day after. If the wire feels uncomfortable while it is in place you may need some mild pain relief.
When the surgery takes place to remove the area of calcification you may have a general or local anaesthetic. The wire will also be removed at this time. You may feel soreness and discomfort after your operation but this can be managed with pain relief. There will be a small scar, but this should fade in time.
It’s likely that these tests will show your calcifications are benign and you won’t need any more treatment.
If the calcifications are part of another benign breast condition, your doctor will tell you if anything else needs to be done. You may also find it helpful to read other leaflets in our benign breast conditions series.
If you’re told that the calcifications are an early sign of breast cancer, your surgeon or breast care nurse will talk to you about what this means and discuss your future treatment.
What this means for you
You may feel anxious about what having breast calcifications means for you. Even if you have calcifications that don’t need any follow-up, you may still worry about breast cancer. Having benign breast calcifications doesn’t increase your risk of developing breast cancer. It’s important to continue to be breast aware, and to go back to your GP (local doctor) if you notice any changes in your breasts, however soon this is after you were told you had calcifications.