Non-Cancerous Breast Conditions

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Finding non-cancerous breast conditions

Signs and symptoms of breast changes

Changes in the breasts may be caused either by benign (non-cancerous) conditions or cancer. The most common symptoms are likely to be caused by benign conditions. Still, it’s important to let your doctor know about any changes you notice. Benign conditions have many of the same symptoms as breast cancer, so it can be hard to tell the difference between benign and cancerous conditions from symptoms alone. Your doctor can do other tests to find out exactly what is causing the breast change.

Some breast changes may not cause any symptoms and may be found during a mammogram.

Lumps

A benign breast condition often causes a lump. It may or may not feel tender. A woman might find it while showering, during other daily activities, or when checking her breasts or under her arms during a breast self-exam. Sometimes a doctor or nurse finds it during a breast exam.

The younger a woman is, the more likely it is that a breast lump will be benign. The most common benign breast lumps are fibroadenomas (fi-bro-ad-uh-NO-muhs) and a combination of fibrosis (fie-bro-sis) and cysts (sists) that’s sometimes called fibrocystic (fie-bro-SIS-tick) changes. These are described in more detail in the section, “Types of non-cancerous breast conditions.”

Although most lumps aren’t breast cancer, there is always a chance that a lump may be breast cancer, even in a younger woman. No matter what age a woman is, lumps and other changes must be checked to be sure they are not breast cancer.

Having many lumps in both breasts is most often caused by the combination of fibrosis and cysts (fibrocystic changes).

Breast lumps, like other symptoms, have to be considered along with other symptoms a woman may be having. For example, a new, tender lump that comes up at the same time as skin redness and a fever could be a sign of a breast infection. Still, any new lump or other change should be checked by a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional.

Skin thickening and/or redness

Redness or thickening of an area of skin on the breast can also have different causes. For example, inflammation of the breast, known as mastitis (mass-tie-tiss), is common in women who are breastfeeding and is usually caused by an infection.

Still, it’s important to have a doctor or nurse check any new redness or thickening because a special type of breast cancer (called inflammatory breast cancer) can look a lot like an infection. Sometimes even doctors have trouble telling the difference. Since this kind of breast cancer grows quickly, you need to go back to the doctor right away if you are treated with an antibiotic and the symptoms don’t get better within a few days of starting treatment. (For more information, see our document, Inflammatory Breast Cancer.)

Pain

Some women have breast pain or discomfort that’s related to their menstrual cycle. This type of cyclic pain is most common in the week or so before a menstrual period. It often goes away once menstruation begins. Many women with fibrocystic changes have this type of cyclic breast pain. It’s thought to be caused by changes in hormone levels.

Some benign breast conditions, such as breast inflammation (mastitis) may cause a more sudden pain. In these cases the pain is not related to the menstrual cycle. Although breast cancers aren’t usually painful, they can be, so having pain doesn’t mean cancer isn’t present.

Nipple discharge

A discharge (other than milk) from the nipple may be alarming, but in most cases it’s caused by a benign condition. As with breast lumps, the younger a woman is, the more likely it is that the condition is benign. See the section, “Nipple discharge exam (nipple smear).”

In benign conditions, a non-milky discharge is usually clear, yellow, or green. Even if you can see blood in the discharge or blood is found in lab tests, the cause is still not likely to be cancer. Still, it’s a reason for concern and you will probably need more tests.

If the discharge is coming from more than one breast duct or from both breasts, it’s often from a benign condition such as fibrocystic changes or duct ectasia (described later).It’s still a good idea to have this checked out by a health care professional.

If the discharge (bloody or non-bloody) is from a single duct, it can be caused by a benign condition in that duct. But it can also be caused by a cancer, so you should see a doctor right away.

A milky discharge from both breasts (other than while pregnant or breastfeeding) 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 caused by certain drugs.

Again, benign conditions are much more common than breast cancer, but it’s important to see a health care professional about any changes in your breasts so they can be checked out right away.


Last Medical Review: 01/14/2014
Last Revised: 01/14/2014