What Are Fibrocystic Breast Changes?

When you touch your breasts, do you notice that they feel lumpy or rope-like? Do they sometimes feel swollen or more tender to the touch, especially in the outer, upper parts? If so, you might have a very common condition doctors call “fibrocystic breast changes.”

This term refers to two naturally occurring conditions in your breasts: fibrous tissue and benign (non-cancerous) cysts.

“Fibrosis” means you have a lot of breast tissue that’s scar-like. It feels firm or rubbery. A cyst is a fluid-filled lump or sac that can move around in your breasts. If fluid builds up, it can stretch the surrounding tissue. It’s not harmful, but it can hurt.

Aside from a difference in the way your breast tissue feels, you might notice that:

  • Changes are similar in both breasts
  • Dark brown or green discharge leaks from your nipples
  • Lumps change size during your menstrual cycle
  • Pain or discomfort increases before your period

Is It Normal?

Yes. About half of women in their 20s to 50s will have fibrocystic breast changes. It’s rare after menopause, but it can happen if you’re having hormone therapy.

This means hormones like estrogen might play a part, since they affect breast tissue. But doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes these changes.

The condition used to be known as “fibrocystic breast disease.” But since it’s a normal part of life for many women -- and not really a disease -- medical professionals now call them “changes.”

Is It Cancer?

No. Fibrocystic breast changes aren’t harmful. And your chances of getting cancer don’t increase because you have them.

But it can make it tricky to feel for new lumps or changes in your breasts when you do self-exams. That’s why you really need to know what’s normal for your breasts. When you notice something different, have your doctor check it out right away.

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How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor will first do a mammogram, or an ultrasound, if you’re younger. She might be able to evaluate your breasts from the shape, density, and other signs from the images.

If she needs more information to decide, she’ll do a biopsy. This means getting a sample of your breast tissue. It’s usually done in an office or clinic with a needle. Some women need surgery.

The biopsy will show if a lump is a cyst or solid. It’ll tell your doctor if the growth is cancerous.

What’s the Treatment?

You usually won’t need any -- unless your doctor finds it’s cancer. If it’s a cyst, your doctor can puncture and drain it. This can lessen pain and pressure, but the fluid can come back. Sometimes, cysts go away on their own.

Some women find relief if they avoid caffeine. This is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and sodas. Studies haven’t proven a link, but if you have fibrocystic breasts, you might try cutting back to see if it helps.

Your doctor may also recommend minor lifestyle changes to help your symptoms, such as:

  • Cut salt from your diet to help reduce breast swelling at the end of your menstrual cycle.
  • Take a diuretic, a drug that helps drain fluid from your body.
  • Ask your doctor before taking any vitamin or herb supplements said to help symptoms. They can have side effects.
  • Some doctors treat severe cases with prescription hormones like birth control pills or tamoxifen, a medication most often used to treat breast cancer. These can have serious side effects, too.

Fibrocystic breast changes can be painful. Try these tips to ease discomfort:

  • Avoid contact sports and activities that could impact your breasts
  • Press heat or ice to painful areas
  • Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen
  • Wear a good quality, supportive bra that fits well. Keep it on at night if needed.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD on February 16, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Fibrocystic Breasts,” “Fibrocystic Breasts: Symptoms and Causes,” “Fibrocystic Breast Changes: Linked To Cancer?”

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Benign Breast Problems and Conditions.”

American Cancer Society: “Fibrosis and Simple Cysts in the Breast.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Fibrocystic Breast Changes.”

Medline Plus: “Tamoxifen.”

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