How to tell if breast changes are cancerous: A HealthCentral Explainer
If you notice any changes in your breast, your first reaction may be to consider the worst case scenario. But chances are that your breast condition falls under one of the many non-cancerous (benign) breast conditions that affect most women. Still, you may want to take comfort in knowing what’s causing any abnormalities.
Here is a breakdown of common types of breast conditions and what they might mean for your health. You should always consult a doctor to properly diagnose your symptoms.
Benign breast conditions
There are many different benign breast conditions. Here are some of the more common types.
- Cysts are fluid-filled sacs more common in premenopausal women. Size of cysts ranges from small to large and can be diagnosed by a mammogram and/or an ultrasound. They can be drained if they are painful, but they don’t usually need treatment. Cysts do not increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Fibroadenomas are solid benign tumors more common in women between ages 15 and 35. They can be removed if they are large and uncomfortable but don’t usually need treatment. Fibroadenomas do not increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Hyperplasia is an overgrowth of cells that usually occurs inside the breast ducts. The two main types are called usual and atypical hyperplasia, and both increase the risk of breast cancer.
- Intraductal papillomas are small growths inside the breast ducts that are more common in women between ages 35 and 55. A lump can be painful and can cause nipple discharge. It can be removed, after which no treatment is needed. Intraductal papillomas can only increase risk of breast cancer if they have abnormal cells or if there is a ductal carcinoma in situ.
Benign breast conditions that increase risk of cancer
Certain breast changes that are considered risk factors for breast cancer include the following:
- Atypical hyperplasia is when abnormal cells are found in the breast lobules (atypical lobular hyperplasia, or ALH) or in the breast ducts (atypical ductal hyperplasia, or ADH).
- Lobular carcinoma in situ is when abnormal cells are found in the breast lobules—more so than with atypical lobular hyperplasia.
Signs of breast cancer
Breast cancer cells form in the tissues of the breast and have the following behaviors:
- Grow and divide
- Invade surrounding breast tissue
- Can form into a tumor
- Can metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body
Whether you have a benign breast condition or just want to take precautions to lower your risk of breast cancer, experts recommend taking the following actions:
- Maintain a healthy weight through exercise and a nutritious diet.
- Drink little or no alcohol.
- Don’t smoke.
- Talk to your doctor about effects of hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives.
Just as, if not more important, make sure you are getting regular breast cancer screenings.
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Jacqueline is a former content producer for HealthCentral. She is a multimedia journalist with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master’s in Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs.