A woman's breast tissue continues to change throughout her entire life, and at some point many women will be diagnosed with a non-cancerous breast abnormality. These abnormalities are called benign breast conditions, and may include fluid-filled sacs, solid-feeling lumps, or swelling due to an infection or inflammation.
Maintaining Good Breast Health
Perform Breast Self-Exams Performing monthly breast self-exams will help you become familiar with the normal monthly changes in your breasts.
Have Regular Mammograms You should have screening mammograms every year starting at age 40. Schedule Regular Breast Examinations Your health care provider should perform an exam every 3 years starting at age 20, and every year after age 40. Know Your Health History Be aware of your family's history and whether it includes breast or other types of cancer. You may want to have an assessment performed to determine if you are at high risk for developing cancer.
• Fibrocystic changes - Changes in hormone balances during normal, monthly menstrual cycles can create, for some women, symptomatic breast changes that are referred to as fibrocystic changes. These often are described as benign, tiny, fluid-filled sacs that may feel like lumps. Tenderness and lump size commonly increase the week before the menstrual period and lessen a week after. The lumps may be hard or rubbery and can appear as a single breast lump that may be large or small. Fibrocystic changes also can appear as thickening of the breast tissue. Fibrocystic changes can occur in one or both breasts and are the most common cause of benign breast lumps in women age 35 to 50. It is relatively uncommon for postmenopausal women to have symptomatic breast changes because of a lack of hormone stimulation of breast tissue.
• Simple cysts - Simple cysts are benign fluid-filled sacs that usually occur in both breasts. They can be single or multiple and can vary in size. Tenderness and lump size often change with the woman's menstrual cycle.
• Fibroadenomas - Fibroadenomas are the most common benign tumors found in the female breast. Fibroadenomas are solid, round, rubbery lumps that move freely in the breast when pushed. They form as the result of excess formation of lobules (milk-producing glands) and stroma (connective tissue in the breast). Fibroadenomas are usually painless. They occur most often between the ages of 20 and 40 and are more common in African-American women.
• Intraductal papillomas - These are small, wart-like growths in the lining of the mammary duct near the nipple. They usually affect women 40 to 50 years of age and can produce bleeding from the nipple or nipple discharge.
• Traumatic fat necrosis - This condition occurs when there is trauma (sudden injury) or surgery to the breast. This causes fat to form in lumps. The lumps are usually round, firm, hard, single, and painless.
• Fibrocystic breast changes do not require treatment. Your physician may recommend therapies that can help relieve monthly tenderness.
• Simple cysts can be treated through fine needle aspiration, which may take place during the evaluation. After fluid is drawn from the cyst, it collapses.
• Fibroadenomas and intraductal papillomas can be removed surgically.
• An inflammation such as mastitis can be treated with warm compresses. Sometimes an antibiotic medication may be prescribed.
Some women have breast pain or discomfort that is related to their menstrual cycle, most commonly in the week or so before a menstrual period. It often goes away once menstruation begins. This breast pain may be caused by changes in hormone levels.
Some benign breast conditions, such as an inflammation or infection, may cause a more sudden pain in one spot. Sometimes breast cancer lumps can be painful, too.
A discharge (other than milk) from the nipple may be alarming, but in most cases it is caused by a benign condition. As with breast lumps, the younger a woman is, the more likely it is that the condition is benign.
In benign conditions, a non-milky discharge is usually clear, yellow, or green. If the discharge contains blood that you can see or that is found in lab tests, the cause is still not likely to be cancer. But it is cause for concern and more testing.
If the discharge is coming from more than one breast duct or from both breasts it is usually because of a benign condition such as fibrocystic changes.
If the discharge (bloody or non-bloody) is from a single duct, it can be caused by a benign condition like intraductal papilloma or duct ectasia. But it can also be caused by a pre-cancerous condition (like ductal carcinoma in situ) or by cancer, and you should see a doctor to have the condition evaluated.
A milky discharge from both breasts (other than while pregnant or breast-feeding) sometimes can happen in response to the menstrual cycle. It can also be caused by an imbalance of hormones made by the pituitary or thyroid gland, or even by certain drugs.
Again, while benign conditions are much more common than breast cancer, it is important to let your health care team know about any changes in your breast so they can be checked out right away.