If you notice a lump or abnormal area in your breast, your mind might immediately go to the possibility of cancer. Did you know that there are non-cancerous breast conditions that can cause lumps to develop? It’s important to have any lumps or changes in your breast evaluated by a physician. If the cause of your breast lump is a non-cancerous breast condition, you may start to wonder if it puts you at a higher risk of developing breast cancer in the future.
The good news is that many non-cancerous breast conditions have no impact on your likelihood of developing cancer. However, there are some that increase the risk. Let’s take a look at non-cancerous breast conditions and which ones increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
What is a Non-Cancerous Breast Condition?
Non-cancerous breast conditions can also be referred to as benign breast disease. This encompasses several different conditions that affect the breast tissue without being cancerous. A non-cancerous breast condition could cause a lump in the breast, pain, nipple discharge, or a change in the shape of the breast. Non-cancerous breast conditions are common among women with up to half of women experiencing some type of change in the breast that causes a lump in their lifetimes.
Types of Non-Cancerous Breast Conditions
Multiple types of non-cancerous breast conditions exist, including fibrocystic breast changes, breast cysts, fibroadenomas, and benign breast tumors.
Fibrocystic Breast Changes
Fibrocystic breast changes occur as a result of normal hormonal changes. When hormones change, it can cause the fibrous breast tissue to feel dense, lumpy, or tender. It can also cause you to develop fluid-filled cysts in the breast.
This is most common among women between 30 and 50 who are still having a menstrual cycle. These changes often occur before menstruation. Fibrocystic breast changes usually go away without treatment. Fibrocystic breast changes don’t increase your risk of developing breast cancer later in life unless you have a family history of both fibrocystic breast changes and breast cancer. For these women, the risk is slightly elevated.
Breast cysts can easily be mistaken for cancerous lumps, but many are non-cancerous. A breast cyst is a fluid-filled sac that typically feels like a grape. Sometimes they can be firmer. The cysts can become painful before menstruation. Most women over 50 don’t experience breast cysts, although they are a little more likely if they take hormone replacement therapy.
Breast cysts can range in size and often do not require treatment because they will often go away on their own. If it’s particularly painful, a breast cyst may need to be drained using a needle biopsy.
There is no increased risk of breast cancer if you have breast cysts. Although you should become familiar with how your breasts normally feel, note any new lumps in case something appears that’s not your typical fluid-filled cyst.
Fibroadenomas are a non-cancerous, firm breast lump that usually do not require treatment. They're more common in women under age 35. They’ll feel smooth and round, usually like a pea. Some fibroadenomas go away on their own while others may get smaller or larger over time. There are a few subtypes of fibroadenomas.
- Complex fibroadenomas which can get larger over time.
- Giant fibroadenomas grow quickly to larger than 2 inches (5 centimeters). They also can press on nearby breast tissue or push it out of place.
- Phyllodes tumors are made of similar tissue that creates fibroadenomas, but under a microscope the phyllodes tumor looks a bit different. It can grow quickly.
For the most part, fibroadenomas do not increase your risk of developing cancer. However, there is some increased risk if it’s a complex fibroadenoma or a phyllodes tumor.
Hyperplasia is an overgrowth of cells in the milk ducts or glands. It doesn’t usually cause a lump, but can be seen on a mammogram. There are two types:
- Usual ductal hyperplasia causes cell overgrowth, but these cells look very close to normal.
- Atypical hyperplasia also causes the cells to overgrow, but they look less like healthy cells.
Atypical hyperplasia is associated with a higher risk of becoming cancerous. If your doctor finds that you have this type of hyperplasia, then they may recommend that you have the breast tissue removed that is affected by the disease and you may need to have mammograms or other screening tests performed more frequently than someone who is at average risk for developing breast cancer.
What to Do If You Notice a Change in Your Breasts
You should always consult your doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts (such as abnormal lumps or discharge). Your doctor can assess you to determine the condition causing whatever changes you're dealing with to help guide treatment.
In the case of hyperplasia, your mammogram will likely show this condition so you can discuss next steps with your doctor.
Breast Monitoring & Screening
Many of these non-cancerous breast conditions occur in women under age 40 who aren’t on a mammogram schedule yet. This reinforces the importance of every woman knowing what is normal for her breasts. That way if you notice something new, you can schedule an appointment with your doctor.
You should also make sure you see your gynecologist about once a year for a checkup. This appointment typically includes a breast exam and a pelvic exam. Your doctor will look for anything unusual, even before you’re eligible for a screening mammogram.
If you have a family history of breast cancer you should talk to your doctor by age 30 to discuss when you should start your breast cancer screening schedule.
Mammograms are the primary breast cancer screening tool. This diagnostic test is an x-ray of the breast tissue. These images can identify areas inside the breast that may look abnormal and should be tested long before they can be felt in an exam – whether by a physician or in a breast self-exam.
The Importance of Self-Monitoring and Screening for Breast Cancer
If you have a non-cancerous breast condition, be sure you monitor your breast changes and take note of what is different from time to time. Talk to your doctor about anything unusual too. They can help you with managing any pain or discomfort these conditions might cause.
In addition to knowing what’s normal for you, it’s important that you go in for your mammograms. They save lives. Your gynecologist or primary care physician can help you identify a place nearby. They are covered by health insurance as a preventative care service. Take advantage of this!
There’s a high likelihood that everything will be normal on your mammogram. But if breast cancer is found early, your doctor can guide you through treatment and help to prevent it from growing and spreading. The five-year survival rate for women with early-stage breast cancer is 99 percent!
Be sure you review our breast cancer screening section for more information.