Because breast cancer has been the subject of so much media attention and marketing, most American women know this message by heart: changes in your breasts should be reported to your doctor.
Every day women write to us via the Q & A section on this site, asking if the change they see in their breast(s) is a symptom of cancer. Asking questions here at HealthCentral is a good first step, a place to get advice about breast-health issues that might be related to cancer.
As expert patients, we use our laymen’s knowledge to assuage your fears, or kick you into gear –whichever is necessary. But, caveat emptor: we’re not doctors. YOU are ultimately the one who has to assess whether your issue warrants medical attention.
Should I see a doctor?
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know which breast changes are truly serious, and which are nothing more than a temporary hormonal issue, an allergic skin reaction, or a harmless cyst. Surely we want to protect ourselves from cancer; and just as surely we don’t want to run to the doctor with every breast pain or patch of rough skin around our nipples.
Nipple discharge, a subject that comes up regularly, seems to produce a lot of waffling: is this worth a doctor’s visit, or not? You ask, “What does it mean? Is it dangerous? Should I worry?”
The following description of types of nipple discharge, and their causes, may help you answer those questions.
“There’s liquid coming out of my nipples…”
Unless it’s breast milk, this is called nipple discharge. There are about 10 tiny openings in each of your nipples, and not only breast milk, but any other liquid from inside your breast can seep out of these openings. This liquid may be thin and clear, almost like water; or thick and dark-colored; or just about anything in between. It may come out on its own, or only when you squeeze your nipples.
“It’s (greenish) (bloody) (yellowish) (thick) – should I be worried?”
Bloody discharge: Generally, the one type of discharge you should worry most about, since it can signal cancer, is bloody: red to dark brown. And it would only be a cancer symptom if it occurred in ONE breast, not both.
A bloody discharge doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer; it can also be the result of a blow to the breast, or a benign papilloma (a small growth in the milk duct). But it means cancer is a possibility, and you should definitely get it checked by a doctor.
•Thick/sticky green/black discharge: This is usually the result of mammary duct ectasia, a problem that’s fairly common in women in their 40s and 50s. It’s an inflammation of one or more milk ducts, much like an internal pimple. It may be painful, but often isn’t. Have your doctor check it to see whether it’s extensive enough that you need an antibiotic.
•White, clear, yellow, or light green discharge: This is often a sign of galactorrhea, a hormonal imbalance. It should be checked with a doctor not because it’s a danger sign for breast disease, but because it might signal a problem elsewhere in your body, such as an underactive thyroid, or a pituitary disorder.
A clear, yellow, or light green discharge may also signal fibrocystic change, a.k.a. fibrocystic disease. About half of all women experience this bothersome condition at some time in their lives. Characterized mainly by breast tenderness and lumps, women with fibrocystic disease often undergo biopsies, and most are benign.
A white discharge may also be the result of an abscess caused by bacteria, which can enter the breast through a cracked nipple. Your breast may ooze pus, and it may become swollen and inflamed. Anytime your breast looks infected, see a doctor.
“My breasts ooze when I squeeze them.”
If you’re experiencing nipple discharge in both breasts at once, it’s almost certainly due to something other than breast cancer, which nearly always occurs in one breast at a time.
Also, whether your breasts ooze on their own, or only when you squeeze them, is not an indication of anything other than that breasts are much more likely to ooze if you squeeze them. Sometimes, relieving nipple discharge is a matter of simply leaving your breasts aloneOne final word: If you’re worried about breast cancer, and nipple discharge is your only symptom (unless it’s a bloody discharge), you can probably stop panicking. But you’re not off the hook: it’s important to get ALL breast changes checked by a doctor if they last longer than a week or so. Do be concerned; don’t be stressed.
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Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.