Harvard Women's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: What are breast calcifications?

Q. What can you tell me about cluster calcifications in the breast?

A. Calcifications in breast tissue are common: about 50% of women over age 50 have them. They may be large (macrocalcifications); these are usually noncancerous (benign) and caused by damage to the breast—for example, from previous surgery, trauma, infection, or radiation. Or they may be very small flecks of calcium (microcalcifications) that, on a mammogram image, look like grains of salt on a sea of gray. About 80% of microcalcifications are benign; however, they are sometimes an indication of precancerous changes or cancer in the breast.

When a radiologist sees microcalcifications on a mammogram, they may be scattered white flecks that appear in both breasts. These are likely to be benign. The radiologist may describe them as "scattered calcifications," and usually doctors simply recommend that a woman continue having routine mammograms. If the microcalcifications are clustered in one breast ("clustered calcifications"), they are more likely to indicate a precancerous change or even cancer. In these cases, a biopsy of the breast tissue is warranted.

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