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Things That Can Look Like Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 27, 2021

If you find a lump or notice other changes in your breasts, you might worry that you have breast cancer. And you should make an appointment with your doctor to get it checked out. But chances are that your breast condition is harmless, or benign.

Lots of conditions can cause symptoms like lumps, swelling, pain, or nipple discharge. Your doctor can find out what’s going on and make sure you get the right treatment.

Benign Breast Tumors

The most common type of non-cancerous breast tumor is called a fibroadenoma. A fibroadenoma can look like a small marble, and you can move it under your skin. It’s usually firm and rubbery, and doesn't hurt.

Doctors aren't sure why you get them, but think there's a hormonal connection. You’re most likely to get one or more when you're in your 20s and 30s.

If you have a fibroadenoma that keeps growing or changing, your doctor can operate to remove it. But sometimes this type of tumor stops growing or shrinks without treatment. Your doctor might just watch it for any changes over time.

Another type of benign tumor is called an intraductal papilloma. This wart-like mass grows in a milk duct. A single papilloma can raise a small lump next to your nipple or behind it. It may lead to a clear or bloody nipple discharge. You’re most likely to get one when you’re 35-55 years old.

You might get several of these tumors farther from your nipple, which makes you less likely to have a discharge. Your doctor can remove papillomas with surgery.

Hormone-Related Changes

Shifting hormone levels seem to play a role in two common conditions that can affect your breasts: fibrosis and cysts. Fibrosis happens when your breast tissue thickens and feels firm or rubbery in spots. Cysts are moveable bumps containing fluid. Together, these are called fibrocystic changes.

About half of women get them at some point in their lives. You’re most likely to get fibrosis, with or without cysts, before menopause. Fibrocystic changes may get worse right before your period and change throughout your cycle. You may notice lumps or a nipple discharge that looks cloudy.

If you have a cyst filled only with fluid, it's called a simple cyst, and is usually nothing to worry about. If it’s filled with fluid and solids, it’s called a complex cyst. Your doctor will do a test to make sure it’s not cancer.

When you have a cyst that hurts, your doctor can drain it with a thin needle. Your doctor can do surgery to remove a painful cyst that keeps coming back.

If your fibrocystic changes aren’t painful, your doctor might just track your symptoms over time. For mild pain, they may recommend remedies like supportive bras, heating pads, over-the-counter pain meds, and avoiding caffeine.

Changes Linked to Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Your breasts might feel lumpier than usual when you’re pregnant. That could be because your milk-making glands are growing in size and number. Some other reasons for breast changes when you're pregnant or breastfeeding are:

Lactating adenoma. This benign tumor, which feels like a moveable lump, can stem from hormones linked either to pregnancy or breastfeeding. Most lactating adenomas go away on their own. If yours doesn't, your doctor can do surgery to remove it.

Mastitis. This infection most often shows up in women who are breastfeeding. It can cause swelling, pain, and redness and make your breast feel warm. You could also run a fever, get a headache, or have flu-like symptoms. Possible causes include a clog in a milk duct, a breast that’s not fully drained of milk, or cracked skin on your nipple.

Your doctor usually treats mastitis with antibiotics. If needed, they’ll empty extra milk from your breast. If antibiotics don’t help you feel better within a week, talk to your doctor. You may need a test to confirm that your symptoms aren’t cancer.

Galactocele. This milk-filled cyst can show up while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Doctors think it's caused by a plugged milk duct. It feels like a tender or painful lump. Remedies like cool compresses, ice packs, or a supportive bra may ease pain. Your doctor can also treat a galactocele by draining it. You’ll need antibiotics if it gets infected.

Bloody nipple discharge. This might happen when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. Your doctor will check to see if a medical condition, or an injury you weren’t aware of, caused it. If tests show there’s nothing to worry about, your doctor will watch it to see if it gets better.

Abscess

This collection of pus feels like a tender lump. You may also have a fever or just feel unwell. You may get a breast abscess if you have mastitis and don’t get treated for it, or the treatment doesn't work. Your doctor can drain it with a needle or surgery. Then they’ll likely prescribe antibiotics.

Duct Ectasia

A blocked milk duct can cause this condition, which becomes more common as you near menopause. It usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, but some women have:

  • Sticky, thick nipple discharge that can look white, green, or black
  • A tender, red nipple or areola (the skin around your nipple)
  • A nipple that turns inward
  • A hard lump

Depending on what symptoms you have, treatment can include warm compresses, antibiotics, or surgery.

Fat Necrosis

This can happen when fatty tissue in your breast gets injured, or after you get breast surgery or radiation. A lump can show up due to scar tissue, or when the injured fat cells turn into a sac of fluid called an oil cyst. Fat necrosis usually doesn't hurt, and is more likely if you have large breasts.

It sometimes goes away on its own. If you have an oil cyst that hurts, your doctor can drain it with a needle. Surgery is an option for a lump that keeps growing or becomes more painful.

Granular Cell Tumor

This type of tumor is usually benign, and it’s rare to get one in your breast. If you do, it usually feels like firm lump that you can move with your finger. It tends to appear in the upper, inner area of your breast. Your doctor will probably recommend surgery to remove it.

Phyllodes Tumor

This type of tumor, which shows up in the connective tissue of your breast, is also rare and is usually noncancerous. You’re most likely to get one when you're in your 40s. It can show up as a lump that doesn’t hurt, but there’s a chance it may be painful. It can grow fast and stretch your skin.

Treatments for a benign Phyllodes tumor include breast-conserving surgery (like lumpectomy or partial mastectomy) or removal of the breast (mastectomy). If the tumor is cancerous, you may need surgery and radiation treatment.

Things Your Doctor Might Find

Some key clues to your breast health can only be spotted with medical tests. That’s why it’s important to keep up with any breast screening tests and checkups your doctor recommends.

Calcifications. These are bits of calcium in your breast tissue. They’re not cancer, but sometimes they can be a sign of it. A mammogram spots them. Calcifications show up in the image as bright white spots or flecks.

Bigger spot or dashes called macrocalcifications are usually caused by harmless conditions, and they’re common after you turn 50.

Smaller specks, called microcalcifications, may be a clue that you have cancer or a higher risk for it. They’re more suspicious if they vary a lot in size or shape or appear in tight clusters. If your mammogram shows these, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. That's when a specialist uses a needle to take a sample of breast tissue to have it checked for cancer.

Atypical hyperplasia. Your doctor might find this condition with a biopsy. Atypical hyperplasia means you have abnormal cells in your breast tissue. There are two main types, and neither is a sign of breast cancer. But both types are tied to higher odds of getting the disease later on. If you have it, your doctor may recommend follow-up tests or medicine to lower your chances for breast cancer.

Dense breasts. This means your mammograms show that your breasts have lots of fibrous or glandular tissue and not much fatty tissue. It’s common to have dense breasts. This can make it harder for your radiologist to spot signs of breast cancer, since dense tissue and tumors both look white in mammogram images. But radiologists can still see signs of cancer. So keep getting mammograms as your doctor recommends.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Non-cancerous Breast Conditions,” “5 Breast Conditions That Aren’t Cancer,” “Breast Changes and Conditions,” “Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms,” “Fibroadenomas of the Breast,” “Intraductal Papillomas of the Breast,” “Fibrosis and Simple Cysts in the Breast,” “Breast Density and Your Mammogram Report,” “Understanding Your Pathology Report: Atypical Hyperplasia (Breast),” “What Does the Doctor Look for on a Mammogram?” “Phyllodes Tumors of the Breast,” “Granular Cell Tumors of the Breast,” “Fat Necrosis and Oil Cysts in the Breast,” “Duct Ectasia,” “Mastitis.”

Up to Date: “Clinical manifestations, differential diagnosis, and clinical evaluation of a palpable breast mass,” “Common problems of breastfeeding and weaning.”

Breastcancer.org: “Fibroadenoma,” “Central Intraductal Papilloma,” “Fibrocystic Breast Changes,” “Benign Breast Changes Associated With Pregnancy and Breastfeeding,” “Understanding Breast Calcifications,” "Benign Breast Conditions."

Johns Hopkins: “Phyllodes Tumors.”

CDC: “Breast Cancer: What Are the Symptoms?”

National Cancer Institute: “Breast Changes and Conditions,” “Intraductal Papilloma.”

MedlinePlus: “Benign Tumors.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Breast Calcifications.”

Mount Sinai: “Intraductal papilloma.”

Mayo Clinic: “Mammary Duct Ectasia.”

National Institutes of Health: “Granular Cell Tumor.”

Journal of Medical Ultrasound: “Imaging of Lactating Adenoma: Differential Diagnosis of Solid Mass Lesion in a Lactating Woman.”

Columbia Surgery: "Non-Cancerous Breast Disease."

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