Patient Education

Fibrocystic Breast Changes

With the risk of breast cancer being a lurking concern for all women, it is not surprising that detecting a lump in your breast can be a very scary, emotional discovery. However, there is good news for women that have been noticing lumps and other changes in their breasts- not all of these growths are cancerous. Sometimes, women will develop benign (not cancerous) lumps in their breasts, especially around the time of their periods. This is an occurrence called fibrocystic breast changes, and they are not a disease, nor do they increase your risk of cancer. However, all lumps found should still be checked out by your doctor.

WHAT ARE FIBROCYSTIC BREAST CHANGES?

Your breasts are made up fat, glands, and fibrous tissue- all separated into 15-20 sections called lobes, which contain many smaller lobulars which produce milk. Your breasts respond to the changes in the levels of hormones in your body- specifically to estrogen and progesterone, which change variably during your monthly menstrual cycle, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Sometimes, the amounts of these hormones can change if you use medications that work in conjunction with these hormones, such as birth control pills, implants, hormone replacement therapy and certain injections. This can cause more pain and fluid in the fibrous areas of the breast.

Fibrocystic breast lumps are lumps, thickened tissue, or temporary swelling. They are benign, meaning they are NOT cancerous, and often appear during childbearing years. They are most often most painful or apparent during the days before your period, when your hormone levels change most. Sometimes one breast may hurt more than the other, and clear, white, creamy or green discharge may occur. However, all discharge, especially bloody, should be examined by your doctor. 

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF FIBROCYSTIC BREAST CHANGES?

Lumps are obviously the most obvious symptoms. Sharp or aching pain, swelling, burning and/or itching also may occur. The breasts may also be visibly uneven, and sometimes discharge can come from the nipples. Oftentimes, fibrocystic breast changes will be manifested in several lumps in a lumpy area, rather than one large lump, or a distinct lump that grows in size, which could be evidence of other problems and should be examined. 

HOW CAN I CHECK FOR LUMPS?

Lumps are most oftentimes found in a doctor’s office during an examination. However, many lumps are also found at home during self breast exams. It is important for all women to do a monthly breast exam to check for problems. This will help you determine what is normal for your breasts, and what is a change. 

Self breast exams are best done in good light in front of a mirror. Place arms at your sides, and make sure to look specifically for dimpling, puckering, or redness of the breast skin. Also check for discharge from the nipples, or any changes in breast size or shape. Check for the same signs with your hands on your hips, as well as when you raise your arms above your head.  After you have looked thoroughly, lie flat on your back, and put one hand behind your head. Use your other hand to gently check your breast by either circling inwards to the nipple from the outside of your breast, moving fingers up and down starting from the underarm area and gradually moving over, or working your way into the nipple from the outside edge. Don’t forget to examine the nipple, gently squeeze each nipple to check for discharge.  Remember the areas above your armpits, which also have breast tissue.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I FIND A LUMP?

If you do find a lump, make sure to call your doctor and schedule an appointment as soon as you can. Your doctor will order either a mammogram, ultrasound, or a biopsy to find out if the lump is benign or cancerous. Sometimes, more than one of these tests will be used. If a cyst is found, your doctor may suggest a procedure that uses a needle to draw out the extra fluid from the cyst, which will usually cause the cyst to disappear. If it doesn’t, or it is solid, your doctor may need to perform more tests.

HOW ARE FIBROCYSTIC BREAST CHANGES TREATED?

There currently are no treatments for fibrocystic lumps that are not cancerous. However, avoiding caffeine, chocolate, and salty foods for a few months and taking over the counter pain relief and vitamin E supplements may help relieve symptoms. It is also important to do regular breast exams. This can help you regulate the lumps and make sure that none of them are growing or changing. Having regular mammograms can also help detect problems earlier.

IN CONCLUSION

Although finding a lump in your breast can be a very scary discovery, it is important to remember that not all lumps are harmful. However, all lumps, no matter how small, should be examined by your doctor to make sure that they are not the beginning of anything serious.