Understanding Breast Changes: A Health Guide for Women

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You may have just received an abnormal mammogram result, or perhaps your health care provider, found a breast lump or other breast change. Keep in mind that breast changes are very common. Most breast changes are not cancer. It is very important to get the follow-up tests that your health care provider asks you to.

Use this information to help you follow-up with your health care provider after an abnormal mammogram finding or breast change. You can also access this information as an e-book or PDF.

Breast Changes

Check with your health care provider if you notice that your breast looks or feels different. The best time to call is when you first notice a breast change. Do not wait until your next mammogram. Mammograms are tests to check for breast changes that are often too small for you or your doctor to feel.

Always get breast changes such as these checked out by your health care provider

Lump or firm feeling:

  • A lump in or near your breast
  • A lump under your arm
  • Thick or firm tissue in or near your breast or under your arm
  • Change in the size or shape of your breast

Lumps come in different shapes and sizes. Most lumps are not cancer. If you notice a lump in one breast, check your other breast. If both breasts feel the same, it may be normal. Normal breast tissue can sometimes feel lumpy. Some women do regular breast self-exams. Doing breast self-exams can help you learn how your breasts normally feel and make it easier to notice and find any changes. Breast self-exams are not a substitute for mammograms.

Nipple discharge or changes

  • Nipple discharge (fluid that is not breast milk) that comes out by itself
  • Fluid that is bloody
  • Nipple changes (such as a nipple that points inward into the breast)

Nipple discharge may be different colors or textures. Nipple discharge is not usually a sign of cancer. It can be caused by birth control pills, some medicines, and infections.

Skin changes

  • Skin on your breast that is itchy, red, scaling, dimpled, or puckered

Breast changes during your lifetime that are normal

Most women have changes in their breasts during their lifetime. Many of these changes are caused by hormones, or can be caused by the normal aging process. Most of these changes are not cancer; they are called benign changes. However, if you notice a breast change, don't wait until your next mammogram. Make an appointment to get it checked.

  • Young women who have not gone through menopause often have more dense tissue in their breasts. Dense tissue has more glandular and connective tissue and less fat tissue. This kind of tissue makes mammograms harder to interpret--because both dense tissue and tumors show up as solid white areas on x-ray images. Breast tissue gets less dense as women get older.
  • Before or during your menstrual periods, your breasts may feel swollen, tender, or painful. You may also feel one or more lumps during this time because of extra fluid in your breasts. These changes usually go away by the end of your menstrual cycle. Because some lumps are caused by normal hormone changes, your health care provider may have you come back for a return visit, at a different time in your menstrual cycle.
  • During pregnancy, your breasts may feel lumpy. This is usually because the glands that produce milk are increasing in number and getting larger.
  • While breastfeeding, you may get a condition called mastitis. This happens when a milk duct becomes blocked. Mastitis causes the breast to look red and feel lumpy, warm, and tender. It may be caused by an infection and it is often treated with antibiotics. Sometimes the duct may need to be drained. If the redness or mastitis does not go away with treatment, call your health care provider.
  • As you approach menopause, your menstrual periods may come less often. Your hormone levels also change. This can make your breasts feel tender, even when you are not having your menstrual period. Your breasts may also feel more lumpy than they did before.
  • If you are taking hormones (such as menopausal hormone therapy, birth control pills, or injections) your breasts may become more dense. This can make a mammogram harder to interpret. Be sure to let your health care provider know if you are taking hormones.
  • When you stop having menstrual periods (menopause), your hormone levels drop, and your breast tissue becomes less dense and more fatty. You may stop having any lumps, pain, or nipple discharge that you used to have. And because your breast tissue is less dense, mammograms may be easier to interpret.

I pay more attention to my breasts since my doctor did follow-up tests on changes that were found.

Finding Breast Changes

Here are some ways your health care provider can find breast changes:

Clinical breast exam: During a clinical breast exam, your health care provider checks your breasts and nipples and under your arms for any abnormal changes. Ask your health care provider at what age and how often you should have a clinical breast exam. During the visit, it's important to share your personal medical history and your family medical history. This includes problems or diseases that you or family members have had.

Mammogram: A mammogram is an x-ray picture of your breast tissue. This test may find tumors that are too small to feel. During a mammogram, each breast is pressed between two plastic plates. Some discomfort is normal, but if it's painful, tell the mammography technician. The best time to get a mammogram is at the end of your menstrual period. This is when your breasts are less tender. Some women have less breast tenderness if they don't have any caffeine for a couple of days before the mammogram. After the x-ray pictures are taken, they are sent to a radiologist, who studies them and sends a report to your health care provider.

Both film and digital mammography use x-rays to make a picture of the breast tissue. The actual procedure for getting the mammogram is the same. The difference is in how the images are recorded and stored. It's like the difference between a film camera and a digital camera. Film mammography stores the image directly on x-ray film. Digital mammography takes an electronic image of the breast and stores it directly in a computer. Digital images can be made lighter, darker, or larger. Images can also be stored and shared electronically.

A research study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute showed that digital mammography and film mammography are about the same in terms of detecting breast cancer. However, digital mammography may be better at detecting breast cancer in women who are under age 50, have very dense breasts, or are premenopausal or perimenopausal (the times before and at the beginning of menopause). Talk with your health care provider to learn more about what is best for you.

  • Mammograms are used for both screening and diagnosis
    A screening mammogram is the kind of mammogram that most women get. It is used to find breast changes in women who have no signs of breast cancer. If your recent screening mammogram found a breast change, or if a lump was found that needs to be checked, you may have a diagnostic mammogram. During a diagnostic mammogram, more x-ray pictures are taken to get views of the breast tissue from different angles. Certain areas of these pictures can also be made larger.
  • Mammograms and breast implants
    When you make your appointment, be sure to tell the staff if you have breast implants. Ask if they have specialists who are trained in taking and reading mammograms of women with breast implants. This is important because breast implants can make it harder to see cancer or other abnormal changes on the mammogram. A special technique called implant displacement views is used.

    If you have breast implants for cosmetic reasons, you may have either a screening mammogram or a diagnostic mammogram. This will depend on the facility that does the mammogram.

    If you have breast implant(s) after having a mastectomy for breast cancer, talk with your breast surgeon or oncologist to learn about the best screening test for you.

Magnetic resonance imaging, also called MRI, uses a powerful magnet, radio waves, and a computer to take detailed pictures of areas inside the breast. MRI is another tool that can be used to find breast cancer. However, MRIs don't replace mammograms. They are used in addition to mammograms in women who are at increased risk of breast cancer. MRIs have some limits. For example, they cannot find breast changes such as microcalcifications. MRIs are also less specific than other tests. This means that they may give false-positive test results.

Sometimes doctors recommend MRI for women who are at increased risk of breast cancer due to:

  • Harmful changes (mutations) in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene
  • A family history of breast cancer
  • Your personal medical history

Getting Mammogram Results

You should get a written report of your mammogram results within 30 days of your mammogram, since this is the law. Be sure the mammography facility has your address and phone number. It's helpful to get your mammogram at the same place each year. This way, your current mammogram can be compared with past mammograms.

  • If your results were normal: Your breast tissue shows no signs of a mass or calcification. Visit your health care provider if you notice a breast change before your next appointment.
  • If your results were abnormal: A breast change was found. It may be benign (not cancer), premalignant (may become cancer), or cancer. It's important to get all the follow-up tests your health care provider asks you to.
  • If you don't get your results, call your health care provider. Keep in mind that most breast changes are not cancer. But all changes need to be checked, and more tests may be needed.

I used to think when a mammogram found something, it was cancer. It turns out that most breast changes are not cancer.

What can a mammogram show?

Four panel mammogram - the first shows a normal mammogram; the second shows a benign cyst; the third shows cancer; the forth shows calcium deposits in the breast

Mammograms can show lumps, calcifications, and other changes in your breast. The radiologist will study the mammogram for breast changes that do not look normal and for differences between your breasts. When possible, he or she will compare your most recent mammogram with past mammograms to check for changes. Mammography is a good tool to find breast changes in most women who have no signs of breast cancer. However, it does not detect all breast cancers, and many changes it finds are not cancer. See your health care provider if you have a lump that was not seen on a mammogram or notice any other breast changes.

Lump (or mass): The size, shape, and edges of a lump give the radiologist important information. A lump that is not cancer often looks smooth and round and has a clear, defined edge. Lumps that look like this are often cysts. See Breast Changes and Conditions: Getting Follow-up Test Results for more information about cysts. However, if the lump on the mammogram has a jagged outline and an irregular shape, more tests are needed.

Depending on the size and shape of the lump, your health care provider may ask you to have:

  • Another clinical breast exam
  • Another mammogram to have a closer look at the area
  • An ultrasound exam to find out if the lump is solid or is filled with fluid
  • A procedure called a biopsy to remove cells, or the entire lump, to look at under a microscope to check for signs of disease

Calcifications: Calcifications are deposits of calcium in the breast tissue. They are too small to be felt, but can be seen on a mammogram. There are two types: Macrocalcifications look like small white dots on a mammogram. They are common in women over 50 years old. Macrocalcifications are not related to cancer and usually don't need more testing. Microcalcifications look like tiny white specks on a mammogram. They are usually not a sign of cancer. However, if they are found in an area of rapidly dividing cells, or grouped together in a certain way, you may need more tests.

Depending on how many calcifications you have, their size, and where they are found, your health care provider may ask you to have another mammogram to have a closer look at the area and/or a test called a biopsy to check for signs of disease.

Even though I was nervous, I'm glad I got the breast biopsy my doctor asked me to. As I waited for my results, it helped to remember the words of my doctor: 'Most breast changes are not cancer.'

Follow-up Testing After an Abnormal Mammogram

After an abnormal mammogram, additional follow-up tests may be needed to learn more.

My doctor said my mammogram found something 'abnormal.' That scared me, so I went back for more testing. It turned out that I had a benign cyst. It wasn't cancer. That was a relief.

Ultrasound: An ultrasound exam uses sound waves to make a picture of breast tissue. This picture is called a sonogram. It helps radiologists to see if a lump or mass is solid or filled with fluid. A fluid-filled lump is called a cyst

MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging, also called MRI, uses a powerful magnet, radio waves, and a computer to take detailed pictures of areas inside the breast. Sometimes breast lumps or large lymph nodes are found during a clinical breast exam or breast self-exam that were not seen on a mammogram or ultrasound. In these cases, an MRI can be used to learn more about these changes.

Breast Biopsy: A breast biopsy is a procedure to remove a sample of breast cells or tissue, or an entire lump. A pathologist then looks at the sample under a microscope to check for signs of disease. A biopsy is the only way to find out if cells are cancer. Biopsies are usually done in an office or a clinic on an outpatient basis. This means you will go home the same day as the procedure. Local anesthesia is used for some biopsies. This means you will be awake, but you won't feel pain in your breast during the procedure. General anesthesia is often used for a surgical biopsy. This means that you will be asleep and won't wake up during the procedure. Common types of breast biopsies include:

  • Fine-needle aspiration biopsy: A fine-needle aspiration biopsy is a simple procedure that takes only a few minutes. Your health care provider inserts a thin needle into the breast to take out fluid and cells.
  • Core biopsy: A core biopsy, also called a core needle biopsy, uses a needle to remove small pieces or cores of breast tissue. The samples are about the size of a grain of rice. You may have a bruise, but usually not a scar.
  • Vacuum-assisted biopsy: A vacuum-assisted biopsy uses a probe, connected to a vacuum device, to remove a small sample of breast tissue. The small cut made in the breast is much smaller than with surgical biopsy. This procedure causes very little scarring, and no stitches are needed.
  • Surgical biopsy: A surgical biopsy is an operation to remove part, or all, of a lump so it can be looked at under a microscope to check for signs of disease. Sometimes a doctor will do a surgical biopsy as the first step. Other times, a doctor may do a surgical biopsy if the results of a needle biopsy do not give enough information. When only a sample of breast tissue is removed, it's called an incisional biopsy. When the entire lump or suspicious area is removed, it's called an excisional biopsy.

    If the breast change cannot be felt, wire localization, also called needle localization, may be used to find the breast change during a biopsy. During wire localization, a thin, hollow needle is inserted into the breast. A mammogram is taken to make sure that the needle is in the right place. Then a fine wire is inserted through the hollow needle, to mark the area of tissue to be removed. Next, the needle is removed, and another mammogram is taken. You then go to the operating room where the surgeon removes the wire and surrounding breast tissue. The tissue is sent to the lab to be checked for signs of disease.

My doctor found what felt like a lump during an exam. She said I should get a biopsy. I was afraid. But my doctor told me that it's always best to find out exactly what the problem is and take care of it early.

Breast Conditions and Follow-up Care

Most breast changes and conditions that are found by a woman herself or during a mammogram are not breast cancer. Many conditions (adenosis, cysts, fat necrosis, fibroadenomas, and intraductal papilloma) are benign changes and do not increase your risk of breast cancer. Other conditions, such as atypical hyperplasia (ALH) or atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), are considered risk factors for breast cancer. However, some breast conditions, such as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) may become cancer and are more serious, as is breast cancer. The list below provides information on these conditions and includes follow-up steps that may be recommended.

Breast conditions that are not cancer

Condition Follow-up care that your doctor may recommend

Adenosis

  • Small round lumps, lumpiness, or the lumps may be too small to be felt
  • Enlarged breast lobules
  • If there is scar-like fibrous tissue, the condition is called sclerosing adenosis. It may be painful. Some studies have found that women with sclerosing adenosis may have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.

Calcifications

  • Macrocalcifications:
    • Calcium deposits in the breast that look like small white dots on a mammogram
    • Often caused by aging
    • Cannot be felt
    • Usually benign (not cancer)
    • Common in women over 50 years old
  • Microcalcifications
    • Calcium deposits in the breast that look like tiny white specks on a mammogram
    • Not usually a sign of cancer. However, if found in an area of rapidly dividing cells or grouped together in a certain way, they may be a sign of DCIS or invasive breast cancer.
  • For macrocalcifications:
    Another mammogram may be needed to have a closer look at the area. Treatment is usually not needed.
  • For microcalcifications:
    Another mammogram or a biopsy may be needed to make a diagnosis.

Cysts

  • Lumps filled with fluid
  • Often in both breasts
  • May be painful just before your menstrual period begins
  • Some cysts may be felt. Others are too small to be felt.
  • Most common in women 35-50 years old and in premenopausal women and in women who are taking menopausal hormone therapy.
  • Cysts may be watched by your doctor over time, since they may go away on their own.
  • Ultrasound can show if the lump is solid or filled with fluid.
  • Fine needle aspiration may be used to remove fluid from the cyst.

Fat necrosis

  • Round, firm lumps that usually don't hurt
  • May appear after an injury to the breast, surgery, or radiation therapy
  • Formed by damaged fatty tissue
  • Skin around the lump may look red, bruised, or dimpled
  • A benign (not cancer) breast condition
  • A biopsy may be needed to diagnose and remove fat necrosis, since it often looks like cancer.
  • Fat necrosis does not usually need treatment.

Fibroadenoma

  • Hard, round lumps that move around easily and usually don't hurt
  • Often found by the woman
  • Appear on a mammogram as smooth, round lumps with clearly defined edges
  • The most common benign breast tumors
  • Common in women under 30 years old.
  • Most fibroadenomas do not increase your risk of breast cancer. However, complex fibroadenomas do slightly increase your risk.
  • A biopsy may be needed to diagnose fibroadenoma.
  • A minimally invasive technique such as ultrasound-guided cryoablation or an excisional biopsy may be used to remove the lumps.
  • These growths may be watched by your doctor over time, since they may go away on their own.

Intraductal papilloma

  • A wart-like growth inside the milk duct, usually close to the nipple
  • May cause pain and a lump
  • May cause clear, sticky, or bloody discharge
  • Most common in women 35-55 years old
  • Unlike single papillomas, multiple papillomas increase your risk of breast cancer.
  • A biopsy may be needed to diagnose the growth and remove it.

Breast changes that are not cancer, but increase your risk of breast cancer

Condition Follow-up care that your doctor may recommend

Atypical hyperplasia

The abnormal cells found in these conditions are not cancer cells. If you have ALH, ADH, or LCIS, talk with a doctor who specializes in breast health. Depending on your personal and family medical history, it may include:

  • Mammograms every year
  • Clinical breast exams every 6 to 12 months
  • Tamoxifen (for all women) or raloxifene (for postmenopausal women). These drugs have been shown to lower some women's risk of breast cancer.
  • Surgery. A small number of women with LCIS and high risk factors for breast cancer may choose to have surgery.
  • Clinical trials. Talk with your health care provider about whether a clinical trial is a good choice for you.
Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
LCIS is a condition in which abnormal cells are found in the breast lobules. There are more abnormal cells in the lobule with LCIS than with ALH. Since these cells have not spread outside the breast lobules, it's called "in situ," which is a Latin term that means "in place."

Breast changes that may become cancer

Condition Follow-up care that your doctor may recommend
Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
  • Abnormal cells in the lining of a breast duct
  • Unlike cancer cells that can spread, these abnormal cells have not spread outside the breast duct. This is why it is called "in situ," which is a Latin term that means "in place."
  • May be called noninvasive cancer or Stage 0 breast carcinoma in situ.
    A breast duct with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) illustration

Treatment is needed because doctors don't know which cases of DCIS may become invasive breast cancer. Treatment for DCIS is based on how much of the breast is affected, where DCIS is in the breast, and its grade. Most women with DCIS are cured with proper treatment.

Treatment choices for DCIS include:

  • Lumpectomy. This is a type of breast-conserving surgery or breast-sparing surgery. It is usually followed by radiation therapy.
  • Mastectomy. This type of surgery is used to remove part or all of the breast. There are different types of mastectomy that differ in the amount of tissue and lymph nodes removed.
  • Tamoxifen. This drug may also be taken to lower the chance that DCIS will come back after treatment, or to prevent invasive breast cancer.
  • Clinical trials. Talk with your doctor about whether a clinical trial is a good choice for you.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer Follow-up care that your doctor may recommend
Breast cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the tissues of the breast. Breast cancer cells:
  • Grow and divide without control
  • Invade nearby breast tissue
  • May form a mass called a tumor
  • May metastasize, or spread, to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body
    Invasive breast cancer cells growing through the wall of a breast duct illustration
A biopsy is used to diagnose breast cancer.
After breast cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out the extent, or stage, of the cancer. The stage is based on the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer.

Breast and Lymphatic System Basics

To better understand breast changes, it helps to know what the breasts and lymphatic system are made of. Breasts are made of connective tissue, glandular tissue, and fatty tissue. Connective tissue and glandular tissue look dense, or white on a mammogram. Fatty tissue is non-dense, or black on a mammogram. Dense breasts can make mammograms harder to interpret.

Breasts have lobes, lobules, ducts, an areola, and a nipple.

  • Lobes are sections of the glandular tissue. Lobes have smaller sections called lobules that end in tiny bulbs that can make milk.
  • Ducts are thin tubes that connect the lobes and lobules. Milk flows from the lobules through the ducts to the nipple.
  • The nipple is the small raised area at the tip of the breast. Milk flows through the nipple. The areola is the area of darker-colored skin around the nipple. Each breast also has lymph vessels.
Anatomy of the breast

The lymphatic system, which is a part of your body's defense system, contains lymph vessels and lymph nodes.

  • Lymph vessels are thin tubes that carry a fluid called lymph and white blood cells.
  • Lymph vessels lead to small, bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are found near your breast, under your arm, above your collarbone, in your chest, and in other parts of your body.
  • Lymph nodes filter substances in lymph to help fight infection and disease. They also store disease-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Getting Support and Considering a Second Opinion

Getting Support

It can be upsetting to notice a breast change, to get an abnormal test result, or to learn about a new condition or disease.

Many women choose to get extra help and support for themselves. It may help to think about people who have been there for you during challenging times in the past.

  • Ask friends or loved ones for support. Take someone with you while you are learning about your testing and treatment choices.
  • Ask your health care provider to:
    • Explain medical terms that are new or confusing
    • Share with you how other people have handled the types of feelings that you are having
    • Tell you about specialists that you can talk with to learn more

I tried not to let the worries of tomorrow bother me today. It meant figuring out what I could and could not control. Talking with other women helped me.

Considering a Second Opinion

You may want to talk with another doctor to get a second opinion on your diagnosis or on your treatment. Many women do. And remember—it's important to talk with a doctor who specializes in breast cancer or in the breast condition that you have.

You can talk with your health care provider to find:

Most doctors welcome a second opinion, especially when treatment is involved. Getting a second opinion is often covered, or even required, by your health insurance. Talking with another doctor can give you peace of mind. It can also help you make the best choices about your health.

Talking With Your Health Care Provider

It can help to prepare before you meet with your health care provider. Use the list below. Write down the breast changes you notice – as well as your personal medical history and your family medical history.

Tell your health care provider about breast changes or problems:

  • These are the breast changes or problems I have noticed:
  • This is what the breast change looks or feels like: (For example: Is the lump hard or soft? Does your breast feel tender or swollen? How big is the lump? What color is the nipple discharge?)
  • This is where the breast change is: (For example: What part of the breast feels different? Do both breasts feel different or only one breast?)
  • This is when I first noticed the breast change:
  • Since then, this is the change I've noticed: (For example: Has it stayed the same or gotten worse?)

Describe your personal medical history:

  • I've had these breast problems in the past:
  • These are the breast exams and tests that I have had:
  • My last mammogram was on this date:
  • My last menstrual period began on this date:
  • These are the medicines or herbs that I take:
  • Right now, I:
    • Have breast implants
    • Am pregnant
    • Am breastfeeding
    • I've had this type of cancer before:

Describe your family medical history:

  • My family members have had these breast problems or diseases:
  • These family members had breast cancer:
  • They were this old when they had breast cancer:

Questions to ask if a biopsy is recommended:

  • Why is a biopsy needed? What will it tell us?
  • What type of biopsy will I have? How will the biopsy be done?
  • Where will the biopsy be done? How long will it take? Will it hurt?
  • How much breast tissue will be removed?
  • Will I be awake?
  • What tests will be done on the breast tissue?
  • When will I know the results?
  • Will there be side effects?
  • How should I care for the biopsy site?
  • Will I need to rest after the biopsy?

Questions to ask about your biopsy results:

  • What were the results of the biopsy?
  • What do the biopsy results mean?
  • What are the next steps? Do I need more tests?
  • Who should I talk with next?
  • Do I have an increased risk of breast cancer?
  • Who can give me a second opinion on my biopsy results?
  • Updated: April 23, 2015