What can cause changes in the breasts?

Woman examining side of breast

Was that lump there before? Why do my breasts hurt? Should that be happening? When you notice a change in your breast or something doesn't feel quite right, your mind might rush to the worst-case scenario: cancer.

But before you panic, or imagine the worst, keep in mind that there are other aspects of a woman's personal health that may cause physical changes in the breast tissue, many of which are unrelated to cancer. One of the best things that women can do to maintain their breast health over time is listen to their bodies, and learn to recognize the physical signs of trouble early on.

Noncancerous breast conditions

There are several noncancerous medical conditions that can cause lumps, bumps, skin irritation, or discomfort in and around the breasts. It's important to remember that these symptoms are not necessarily indicative of cancer. In fact, there are many reasons that a woman's breasts may undergo physical changes at different times throughout her life. Pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, and natural hormonal fluctuations in the body can all lead to physical changes in the breasts, or lesser symptoms like mild discomfort.

It is also quite common for adult women of all ages to develop benign masses, commonly referred to as cysts or fibrocystic tumors, which are small, fatty, or fluid-filled sacs that naturally occur in the breast tissue. While there are different types of cysts and fibrocystic masses that can affect the breast tissue, a majority of them are unrelated to cancer.

When speaking with my patients, I try to stress the importance of knowing and listening to our bodies as often as possible. You will be the first person to know if something feels off, or if there is a change in the appearance of your breasts that may be cause for concern.

Some of those physical warning signs include:

  • A new mass or "lump" in the breast or near the armpit
  • Thickening or swelling in part of the breast
  • Dimpling or irritation of the breast skin
  • Flaky skin or redness surrounding the nipple
  • Nipple discharge aside from breast milk, or bleeding from the nipple
  • Any sudden changes in the shape or size of the breast
  • Unexplained pain in and around the breasts

Conducting regular self-breast examinations is the best way for women to familiarize themselves with what is normal for their body, and to notice right away when something isn't right.

What is normal?

When a woman experiences a change in breast size or landscape, their first thought is often: Is this normal? But in the care of our breasts—and our bodies—nothing is "normal." All bodies are unique, and what is normal for one woman may be entirely unusual for another.

The physical appearance of a woman's breasts can, and often will change several times throughout her life. So, rather than focusing on what's "normal" or "typical" across the board, it is much more beneficial to know your body well enough to recognize what's normal for you.

Early detection and preventive screenings

When dealing with a potential breast health issue, time is precious. If a problem is detected early, the potential for effective intervention increases tenfold. All of my patients are encouraged to schedule annual mammograms starting at age 40, or earlier if they have a higher risk for breast cancer due to personal or family risk These annual screenings continue to be the best defense against breast cancer, and allow for early detection and intervention.

Maintaining your breast health is a lifelong commitment. If you have any concerns about your breast health, contact your primary care provider or OB/GYN and and schedule an appointment so you can share your concerns and schedule a screening, if necessary. Don't let fear keep you from getting the care you need.

Explore preventive screening options

Main Line Health Cancer Care provides compassionate care through all stages of cancer treatment, from diagnosis through survivorship, for patients throughout the Philadelphia region and beyond. To schedule an appointment with a cancer specialist at Main Line Health, 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).

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