Worried about breast cancer? You’re not alone. Breast cancer is the #1 health fear for American women. But in reality, the vast majority of breast lumps, itchiness, pain, nipple discharge, and other breast changes have nothing to do with cancer. Here are some facts to lower your stress level.
Most breast lumps aren’t cancer
The majority of breast lumps women identify, either by feeling them or via mammogram, aren’t breast cancer. About 80 to 85 percent of breast lumps are something else: a cyst, a fibroademoa (benign tumor), fibrocystic change, scar tissue" A breast lump lasting longer than a month should be examined by a doctor; but the chance of that lump being cancerous is small.
Are you a younger woman?
If so, don’t waste energy worrying about breast cancer. Approximately 93% of new breast cancer cases (and 97% of breast cancer deaths) occur in women aged 40 and older. Between age 20 and 30, your chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 in 1,837. Between age 30 and 40, it’s 1 in 234.
**Having a biopsy? **
You’ve been through all the tests: mammogram, ultrasound, MRI. Your doctor is still worried enough about that lump that s/he wants to biopsy it. Uh-oh; doesn’t "biopsy" mean cancer? Usually not. About 80% of breast biopsies are negative - no cancer.
Examine and assess the lump you found
You discovered a lump while showering. Before you panic, examine it more closely. Is it soft? Probably a cyst. Does it move around under your fingers, rather than feel firmly anchored? Probably not cancer. Breast cancer lumps tend to be hard, and feel anchored in place.
Attention, teens and 20-somethings
If you’re under 20 years old, your chance of having breast cancer is less than one in a million. If you’re 20 years old, your chance of developing breast cancer between now and your 30th birthday is just 1 in 1,837. Worry about paying off those college loans instead
What about nipple discharge?
That clear, greenish, or milky liquid you’ve noticed coming out of your nipples? It’s almost certainly due to normal changes in hormone levels, especially if it’s happening in both breasts; and only when you squeeze your nipples. A spontaneous bloody discharge from one nipple can be a sign of cancer but, more likely, it signals an infection.
“Something’s happening with my breasts”"
When any breast change you notice - soreness, itchiness, nipple discharge - affects both breasts at once, there’s very little chance what you’re feeling signals breast cancer. Breast cancer nearly always starts with a lump or other symptom in just one breast.
What about this rash?
Or this bump that looks like a bug bite? Or how about this bruise that suddenly appeared? While certain visible breast changes - a rash, a pimple, a bruise - can signal inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), it’s very rare. Chances are what you see IS just a bug bite; a bruise; or a simple skin rash. Rule of thumb: if the symptom lasts longer than a few days without showing signs of going away, see a doctor.
Pain, soreness, fullness
You develop a sudden sharp pain in your left breast, pain that occurs off and on for several days. Or your breasts are suddenly super-sore, so sore you can barely put on your bra. Or they just "feel funny." Are these cancer symptoms? Probably not. It’s usually only certain rare types of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer, that are accompanied by symptoms you can feel.
“I’ve read that an itchy breast is a sign of cancer”"
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) often begins with itchiness. But that doesn’t mean every time you need to scratch your breast, you should think about IBC. IBC accounts for only about 1% to 5% of all breast cancers. Most breast itchiness is the result of dry skin, dermatitis, or a fungal infection.
When to see your doctor -
While you shouldn’t stress over breast cancer, neither should you ignore changes in your breasts. Any breast change should be examined and diagnosed by a doctor if it lasts longer than one menstrual cycle (if you’re pre-menopausal); or longer than a few days (if you’re post-menopausal). Any change that worsens or spreads quickly (redness, rash, swelling, pain) should be examined by a doctor ASAP.
American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2011-2012. Atlanta:
American Cancer Society, Inc.
Hamel, P. (2009, August 21). Dear sister: A message to our teenage readers. Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/c/78/83758/teenage-readers/
Hamel, P. (2008, June 22). If you think you might have breast cancer, read this. Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/c/78/31678/breast-cancer
Hook, D. (2011, December 05). When to worry about breast lumps. Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/when-to-worry-about-breast-lumps.aspx
Johnson, P. (n.d.). More on inflammatory breast cancer. Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/types-293874-5.html
Johnson, P. (2008, September 26). Rash or inflammatory breast cancer? When should I panic? Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/c/9692/42433/inflammatory
Women’s fear of heart disease has almost doubled in three years, but breast cancer remains most feared disease . (2012, February 29). Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/educational/hearttruth/about/fear-doubled.htm
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.