Although a change in the feel or appearance of a breast can be anxiety-provoking, such changes often stem from benign causes instead of breast cancer. Still, when a new change is detected, it is important to bring it to the attention of a doctor so that it can be promptly evaluated.
Since women's breasts undergo regular changes in size or texture during the menstrual cycle, it is important to become familiar with what's "normal" for you so you can quickly identify any change that may be suspicious. The most common suspicious change is the appearance of a lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue. Other changes that require a physician's attention:
- An alteration in the breast's shape or size
- A reddening of the breast skin
- Changes to the texture of the skin over the breast including dimpling or pitting like an orange
- Discharge of clear or bloody material from the nipple
- Changes to the nipple area, including inversion of the nipple or flaking and peeling of the skin
- Puckering, flattening, or tightening of the areola
While breast cancer causes lumps and changes in the feel and size of breasts, so can a number of benign conditions. These include:
Cysts: Saclike, fluid-filled structures that can be as large as an egg and may feel tender. Cysts are most common in women between 30 and 50 years of age and may become larger before the menstrual period and shrink or vanish when it is over. They occur less often after menopause. Breast cysts don't require treatment unless a cyst is large or uncomfortable, in which case the fluid from a cyst can be drained to alleviate the discomfort.
Fibroadenomas: Benign (noncancerous) tumors that can increase or decrease in size or even vanish. One of the most common breast lumps in premenopausal women, they feel firm and smooth, with a well-defined shape that moves easily under the skin when touched. They can be as small as a pea or as large as an orange and usually do not cause discomfort. The diagnosis can be made using ultrasound to evaluate the lump for the features associated with a probable fibroadenoma. The radiologist or your doctor may recommend an ultrasound-guided biopsy to confirm this diagnosis. Some women may choose to have the fibroadenoma removed.
Fibrocystic changes: The development of a ridge-like, cobblestone-like consistency in the breast tissue—a common condition, estimated to affect over 60 percent of women. Premenstrual tenderness described as a dull, heavy pain and tenderness can accompany these changes in the texture of the breast tissue. As the symptoms fluctuate with the menstrual cycle and often disappear after menopause, fibrocystic changes are thought to be linked to fluctuating hormone levels in the body.
Infection: A breast infection, or mastitis, which often occurs while a woman is breastfeeding. As with infections elsewhere in the body, indications of mastitis include swelling, tenderness, redness, and heat. Mastitis is often accompanied by fever, a general sick feeling, and swollen underarm lymph nodes.
Trauma: Bruising or a lump may follow an injury to the breast. Such lumps still need to be evaluated to make sure they are indeed due to damaged breast tissue and not the result of a cancer that is bleeding because of the recent trauma.
Last reviewed on 3/28/10
U.S. News's featured content providers were not involved in the selection of advertisers appearing on this website, and the placement of such advertisement in no way implies that these content providers endorse the products and services advertised. Disclaimer and a note about your health.