Sometimes, a woman feels an unfamiliar lump in the breast or is bothered
by monthly breast symptoms. A woman experiencing breast changes may be
uncertain as to what those changes mean and whether they are a cause for concern.
Lois Jensen, MPH, MD, an obstetrics and gynecology physician at
Humboldt Medical Specialists in Eureka, reassures women that not all breast changes indicate breast
cancer. “Non-cancerous breast conditions are not uncommon,”
Dr. Jensen says, “and in fact, almost all women have them at some
point during their lives. There is nothing abnormal about most breast
changes that are biopsied. Some benign conditions are associated with
a risk of future breast cancers, and it is always important to take note
of breast changes. But benign breast conditions are not cancer and women
should not be overly anxious about having them.”
The most common non-cancerous breast condition is fibrocystic breasts.
It consists of nodes of breast tissue that feel like lumps or strands
of rope. Dr. Jensen explains, “As the name suggests, fibrocystic
breasts contain two types of changes: fibrosis and cysts. Fibrosis is
a lattice of rubbery fibers that feels like scar tissue inside the breast.
These fibers are firm and hard. Cysts are sacs of fluid that can be as
small as a pea or reach up to a few inches in size. They can usually be
moved around a little bit and are sensitive to the touch. Both fibrosis
and simple cysts are benign.”
Although they are not life-threatening, fibrocycstic breast changes can
cause a range of uncomfortable symptoms. The breasts may be achy and painful,
they may burn and itch, and they may leak without being pressed or squeezed.
The tenderness often centers in the breasts’ upper and outer areas.
Despite aches and pains, several signs are a tip-off that a breast change
is of the benign and fibrocycstic kind. Dr. Jensen says, “The most
common indicator of fibrocystic breasts is when the discomfort and the
lumps increase each month from the time of ovulation to the time just
before the menstrual period and then dissipate after the period starts.
And fibrocystic changes often occur in both breasts at once, rather than
in one or the other.”
The cyclical nature of fibrocystic breasts gives doctors a clue that they
are produced by monthly hormonal changes. “No one has discovered
the precise cause or causes of fibrocystic breasts,” says Dr. Jensen,
“but estrogen—the female reproductive hormone—plays
a part in the process. During the menstrual cycle, a woman’s hormone
levels rise and fall in a way that can increase the amount of fluid in
the breasts, make them thicker and lumpier, and cause temporary swelling
and soreness. Hormones can also change the breasts when a woman is pregnant
or taking hormone therapy.”
The fact that fibrocystic and other non-cancerous breast conditions are
so common make it all the more essential for women to keep current on
their breast exams. “Every woman needs a regular clinical exam,
mammogram, and ultrasound in order to properly evaluate the health of
her breasts,” Dr. Jensen advises. “The doctor will use these
helpful examinations to double-check for unusual conditions in the breast
that can’t be seen and to distinguish between normal breast changes
and areas of potential concern.” For example, a mammogram utilizes
X-rays to take a close look at breast tissue, and an ultrasound uses sound
waves that can tell whether a breast lump is a fluid-filled cyst or a
“A monthly self-exam will help a woman get to know what is normal
for her breasts,” says Dr. Jensen, “and if she finds a questionable
lump or other breast changes, or if the breasts have new problems that
don’t go away after her period, it is important that she see her
primary care physician or obstetrician/gynecologist.”
Has a breast exam helped you manage benign changes in your breasts? Share
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.