- Non-cancerous Breast Conditions
- What is normal breast tissue and what does it do?
- Finding benign breast conditions
- American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer detection
- Diagnosing benign breast changes
- Imaging tests for breast disease
- Nipple discharge exam (nipple smear)
- Types of non-cancerous breast conditions
- Fibrosis and simple cysts
- Lobular carcinoma in situ
- Phyllodes tumors
- Intraductal papillomas
- Granular cell tumors
- Fat necrosis and oil cysts
- Duct ectasia
- Other benign breast conditions
- How benign breast conditions affect breast cancer risk
- For women at increased breast cancer risk
- Additional resources
Finding benign breast conditions
Signs and symptoms of breast changes
Changes in the breasts may be caused either by benign conditions or cancer. The most common symptoms are likely to be caused by benign conditions. Still, it is important to let your doctor know about any changes you notice. Many symptoms of benign conditions are the same as those seen in breast cancer. It is hard to tell the difference between benign and cancerous conditions based on symptoms alone. Your doctor can do other tests to tell the difference between the two.
Some benign breast conditions may not cause any symptoms and may be found during a mammogram or a breast biopsy.
A benign breast condition often causes a lump. It may or may not feel tender. A woman might find it while showering or during her other daily activities, or when checking her breasts or under her arms during a breast self-exam. Sometimes her doctor or nurse finds it during a breast exam.
The younger a woman is, the more likely it is that a single breast lump will be benign. The most common benign breast lumps are fibroadenomas and a combination of fibrosis and cysts that is sometimes called fibrocystic 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 single 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 (sometimes called 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 or nurse.
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, is common in women who are breastfeeding and is usually caused by an infection. But it's important to have a doctor or nurse check any new redness or thickening because a special type of breast cancer (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 get back to the doctor right away if you are treated with an antibiotic for breast skin redness and thickening and it doesn't get better within a few days of starting treatment. (For more information, see our document, Inflammatory Breast Cancer.)
Some women have breast pain or discomfort that is 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 cyclic breast pain. This is 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 one spot. 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.
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. (See the section, "Nipple discharge exam (nipple smear).")
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 a reason for concern and more testing.
If the discharge is coming from more than one breast duct or from both breasts it is often from a benign condition such as fibrocystic changes or duct ectasia (described later). Still, it is a good idea to have this checked out by a doctor or nurse.
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 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 is important to let your health care team know about any changes in your breasts so they can be checked out right away.
Last Medical Review: 08/24/2012
Last Revised: 08/24/2012