The Facts About Breast Conditions
Different breast conditions can affect women of all ages, and while many are normal, they can sometimes cause unnecessary worry about more serious complications. Fortunately, most visible signs are benign and require nothing more than monitoring during your monthly breast self-exam (and attending annual checkups with your doctor).
Learning about breast health and these common conditions can help you know which symptoms are important to report to your doctor and prepare you for possible treatment. Fully disclosing all health symptoms and communicating any changes are essential to ensuring an accurate breast health diagnosis.
An overview of breast health
Giving up smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can help mitigate breast health issues. Nonsmokers and people who consume no more than one alcoholic beverage per day are usually at a lower risk for breast health complications and have less of a chance of future cancer risks.
Managing breast health daily can be part of your collaboration with a primary care physician, an obstetrician or a gynecologist, based on careful consideration of your family history of cancer. If you have a close relative, such as a mother, sister or daughter, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, your chances of getting it are doubled, and practicing preventive measures limits behaviors that further increase these risks.
But even making smart daily choices or emphasizing a health-conscious focus doesn't exempt you from issues. Breast conditions can occur in anyone. While proactive steps can improve overall health, sometimes genetics plays a large role in determining whether people develop certain types of breast cancer. Performing monthly self-exams is important to monitoring healthy breasts; they also help patients find many benign breast conditions. But women should not rely on self-exams as their primary mode of prevention. Annual doctor visits are more important to overall health.
Fibroadenomas are extremely common, noncancerous tissue growths that can occur at any point in a woman's life and are most commonly associated with hormonal changes. In the past, the medical community thought these growths were precancerous, and doctors would therefore remove them to prevent possible malignancy. These procedures often left women with painful scar tissue, and doctors now agree that the best treatment is to leave them alone and monitor them.
Now, these growths are removed only if they cause constant pain or display frequent growth changes associated with monthly hormonal fluctuations. Fibroadenomas can be firm to the touch and may be more or less prominent depending on where you are in your monthly cycle. These areas are often painless but can become tender in the days leading up to menstruation.
Depending on the size and location of a growth, and its appearance on imaging, your doctor may request a biopsy, a mammogram or an ultrasound to rule out a possible malignancy and discuss a treatment plan. It's important to document any monthly changes when a fibroadenoma is present, because while these growths rarely become malignant, they can become painful and can impair mammogram results.
Cysts can occur anywhere in the body, including on the face, ear lobes, throat, breasts and ovaries. These growths are simply areas where fluid accumulates and becomes a pocket. They rarely become cancerous, but they often swell or shrink with regular hormone fluctuations. That frequent fluctuation in size can cause pressure on the surrounding breast tissue, causing monthly breast tenderness.
Depending on the size and location of the cyst, your doctor may recommend tapping the cyst and testing its fluid for cancerous cells. Regular monitoring is recommended because cysts can put pressure on other areas of the breast and cause secondary complications.
Should a cyst become painful or too big, draining it by removing the fluid with a needle may be necessary. This fluid removal can relieve pressure on the surrounding tissue, and the fluid can be tested for cancerous cells.
Nipple size and appearance varies from woman to woman, and you should be on the lookout for nipples that change in appearance. A healthy nipple should be soft and supple, and the skin should not be scaly or cracked. There should be no pain or tenderness to the touch, and discharge that is yellow, has an odor or contains blood could be a sign of an infection.
As you age, your breasts continue to change, and once you reach menopause, your body makes lasting changes that end your ability to have children. When this happens, you may experience nipple ectasia and intraductal papillomas, which can be characterized by a sometimes alarming discharge.
Nipple ectasia occurs when nipple ducts become dilated, resulting in a duct blockage and discharge. Intraductal papillomas can cause bloody discharge from small, wart-like growths that block the milk ducts. Both of these conditions can cause pain and swelling near or in the nipples, but treatment is simple—often warm compresses or antibiotics, and, rarely, surgery—and they often clear up quickly.
Nipple health is best monitored during a monthly breast exam, and proper nipple palpation should be a part of every exam. When monitoring breast health, take careful consideration of the nipples because the small bumps, or Montgomery glands, can distract you from noticing any new growths that could be cancerous. It's also important to note the size and location of these Montgomery glands because changes in size and appearance can be a warning sign of a more serious condition.
Small bumps and blemishes are often acne or ingrown hairs. These are common in the area around the nipple and anywhere on the breast, and can be caused by restrictive clothing or leaving sweaty clothing on for too long.
Other potential breast health complications
Potential breast health complications such as skin rashes, nipple and duct infections, and benign growths can all mimic symptoms of cancer, such as redness, large growths or ridges under the skin, breast swelling and tenderness, pain in the nipples or nipple discharge.
Monitoring breast health during monthly self-exams is critical, and because many of these conditions may correlate with hormonal fluctuations, you should pay close attention to your breast health before, during and after menstruation. While these common conditions can make you fear the worst, they are important reminders to communicate with your doctor and report any changes in health.
Many common conditions, like rashes under or around the breast and breast pain, will often go away on their own. Typically, rashes are caused by poor air circulation to the skin as a result of bra and clothing choices. Similarly, your bra type and fit can sometimes cause pain and tissue damage, especially if the bra does not support the breasts properly during daily activity. But when this pain is not associated with premenstrual symptoms or benign tissue growth, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
When diagnosing a breast or nipple condition, your doctor will first complete a physical breast exam to identify new growths or changes to old growths. If an infection is present, a course of antibiotics will treat the immediate symptoms. Regardless of the issue, it's likely that your doctor will want to follow up with a mammogram or breast ultrasound to check for cancerous growths.
Overall health promotes breast health
Whatever your current habits, it's possible to change them, and your health, for the better. Regardless of your age, your breast health and reproductive health are essential to full-body wellness. Preventive dietary and activity choices can keep you healthy, and monthly breast self-exams can help identify troublesome growths and health complications long before they create a lasting impact. Education can help women overcome myths about breast health that prevent them from communicating their symptoms to their doctors.