You feel a lump in your breast and immediately panic. It’s understandable: Breast cancer accounts for nearly one in three cancers diagnosed in women. But most lumps, as well as the majority of other breast changes, actually are caused by benign conditions. Three examples:
Breast lumps. They could be cysts. Most often found in women in their 40s, these round- or oval-shaped fluid-filled sacs are not cancerous, nor do they raise your risk. No one knows exactly what causes breast cysts to form, but some science suggests excess estrogen may play a role. Cysts sometimes can get bigger and become painful just before menstruation.
Any new lump needs to be checked. To confirm the mass is a cyst, your doctor will need an ultrasound or a fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy. If the cyst is large and painful, it can be drained via the FNA.
Nipple discharge (that’s not milk). It could be non-cancerous tumors. Called intraductal papillomas, these benign growths develop within breast ducts. Causes and risk factors are unknown, but single tumors in the large milk ducts near the nipple result in clear or bloody discharge. In most cases, they do not raise breast cancer risk.
Tell your doctor about discharge, especially if it’s bloody, which sometimes does indicate breast cancer. If a papilloma is diagnosed, your doctor will likely remove it and a part of the duct the tumor was found in.
Pain. It could be your period. Some women feel a dull ache in their breasts a week before menstruation, often accompanied by swelling, but symptoms subside once your period starts. Women who have fibrocystic breasts, a prominence of scar-like tissue and cysts, may feel pain around their cycles.
Breast pain often resolves on its own, but over-the-counter pain relievers or a supportive bra can help. Trimming dietary fat to less than 20% of total calories also can decrease pain from fibrocystic breasts.