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Pregnancy & ChildbirthWellness & PreventionTreatment & Care

Common Breast Conditions

If you find changes or something unusual in one of your breasts, it’s important to see a doctor or nurse as soon as possible. But keep in mind that most breast changes are not cancer. Just because your doctor wants you to have a biopsy does not mean you have breast cancer. In fact, most biopsy results are not cancer. But the only way to know for sure is to remove and test tissue from the suspicious area of the breast.

Non-cancerous breast conditions are very common. They can occur at any age and are never life threatening. They include:

  • Fibrosis and/or cysts
  • Benign breast tumors
  • Other benign breast conditions
Non-Cancerous Breast Changes 

Fibrosis and Cysts

Fibrosis and/or cysts are benign changes in the breast tissue that occur in many women at some time in their lives. These changes often are affected by hormones and may get worse just before your menstrual period starts.

Fibrosis is firmness in the connective tissues and cysts are fluid-filled sacs. These changes can cause areas of lumpiness, thickening or tenderness; nipple discharge; or pain in the breast. If they are painful, cysts can be treated by removing the fluid with a needle and syringe, but they may fill up again later.

A cyst cannot be diagnosed by physical exam alone, nor can it be diagnosed by a mammogram alone. To be sure that a lump is really a cyst, the doctor can do either a breast ultrasound or take fluid from the cyst with a thin, hollow needle.

Lumps and areas of thickening caused by fibrosis and cysts are almost always harmless. In severe cases, doctors can prescribe medicines that may help reduce or relieve your symptoms, but surgery is rarely recommended.

Benign Breast Tumors

Benign breast tumors are non-cancerous areas where breast cells have grown abnormally and rapidly, often forming a lump. Unlike cysts, which are filled with fluid, tumors are solid.

Benign breast tumors may hurt, but they are not dangerous and do not spread outside the breast to other organs. Still, some benign breast conditions are important to know about because women with them have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, and surgery may be recommended in these cases.

A biopsy is the only way to find out if a lump is benign or cancer. In a biopsy, part or all of the lump or suspicious area is removed and examined under a microscope.

If a benign tumor is large, it may change the breast’s size and shape. If it’s growing into the tissue of the milk ducts, it may cause an abnormal discharge from the nipple. Depending on the type, size and number of benign tumors, doctors may recommend surgery to remove them.

Other benign breast conditions

Mastitis: Mastitis is a breast infection that most often occurs in women who are breastfeeding where the breast becomes red, warm or painful. Abscesses (pus-filled pockets) can form, and they may need to be drained with a needle. Mastitis is treated with antibiotics. If the mastitis does not get better with antibiotics, it’s important that you let the doctor know. Some breast cancers can look a lot like infections.

Fat Necrosis: Fat necrosis sometimes happens when an injury to the breast heals and leaves scar tissue that can feel like a lump. A biopsy can confirm that the change is not cancer. Sometimes when the breast is injured, a cyst forms instead of scar tissue during healing.

Duct Ectasia: Duct ectasia is common and most often affects women in their 40s and 50s. Symptoms are usually a green, black, thick or sticky discharge from the nipple and tenderness or redness of the nipple and area around the nipple. Duct ectasia can also cause a hard lump, which is usually biopsied to be sure it’s not cancer. Redness that does not go away may need to be biopsied to be sure it’s not cancer.