Guys may not understand this, but we women really do sit around talking about things like how dense our breasts are and what a pain they can be—literally. We do it because we care. So when a friend lamented, “I have such dense breasts that I find something lumpy just about every time I check—so I never know whether to run to the doctor or not,” I took note. What signs should women like my friend watch for, and how long should they follow a lump before getting it checked out?

I called Jill R. Dietz, MD, director of the Breast Cancer Program at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. She confirmed that this is a topic worth paying attention to because women whose breasts are dense (meaning that they contain more glandular or connective tissue than fatty tissue) are at increased risk for breast cancer. In fact, research shows that breast cancer is about four to six times more common in women with extremely dense breasts than in women with very low-density breasts.

Very important: No matter how lumpy or unlumpy your breasts are, see a doctor immediately if you develop any of the following possible symptoms of breast cancer—dimpling, redness, scaling or irritation of breast skin…nipple discharge or inversion…pain anywhere in the breast…swelling of all or part of the breast…any change in the size or shape of the breast…or a lump in the underarm area.

In the absence of any such symptoms, however, there’s no need to panic over every lump and bump, Dr. Dietz said. Here’s how to be cautious yet still keep your cool…

  • Get digital mammograms according to your doctor’s recommended screening schedule. Compared with traditional film technology, digital mammograms are significantly better at revealing cancer in dense breasts because they produce images on a computer screen that can be enhanced and magnified for closer viewing. Bonus: Digital mammography exposes women to slightly less radiation than film mammography. Note: Your doctor also may recommend additional screening with MRI or ultrasound.
  • If you’re premenopausal, check your breasts for lumps at the same time of the month every month—one week after your period starts. This reduces the number of false alarms because that’s when breast tissue is least dense. If you do find a new lump that your doctor hasn’t already checked out, follow it for one menstrual cycle. If it goes away, there is no need for concern—cancer doesn’t respond like that to menstruation-related hormonal fluctuations, Dr. Dietz explained, so it was probably just a benign cyst. If the lump remains after one month, see your doctor or a breast specialist .
  • If you’re postmenopausal, check your breasts monthly on any day that’s easy for you to remember, such as the first of the month or the date that corresponds to your birthday.

“Women are very good at taking care of others but notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. So it’s a good idea to have a friend remind you to do your monthly exams and to get regular mammograms—and you can do the same for her,” Dr. Dietz suggested.