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What is Benign Breast Disease?

Cancer may be the first thing that comes to mind if you notice a lump or change in one of your breasts. But before getting overly concerned, here’s something to keep in mind: Most breast changes are considered benign (noncancerous), they usually don’t put your health at risk, and they may even clear up on their own.

However, benign breast disease may need to be treated or monitored closely, especially if it is one that can raise your risk for breast cancer later on. Here is what you need to know.

Four to watch

At some point, most women will be diagnosed with a benign breast condition, like a lump or mass, pain, an infection, nipple discharge, or skin changes. For instance, many women experience some swelling or lumpiness in their breasts (called fibrocystic breast changes) before their periods. And it’s not unusual to have lumpy breasts and a milky discharge during pregnancy, when a woman’s breasts are preparing to make milk.

The majority of benign breast diseases don’t become breast cancer. But there are a few that can make breast cancer more likely, explained Richard J. Bleicher, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. For instance:

  • Fibroadenomas. These benign breast tumors feel like hard, round lumps and they move. Fibroadenomas can increase breast cancer risk slightly, but they are usually not treated because they sometimes go away on their own. “However, if the tumor bothers a woman or is growing over time, removing should be considered,” Bleicher said.
  • Atypia of the breast. Atypia are irregular spots or lesions that are often caught on a mammogram. “The cells aren’t cancerous, but they’re not completely normal looking,” Bleicher explained. “Atypia can increase the risk of breast cancer by around four-fold, so they’re typically removed.”
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ. This condition is similar to atypia of the breast, but there are more irregular cells. “When you have lobular carcinoma in situ, we remove the suspicious area to make sure there are no cancerous cells there,” Bleicher said.
  • Intraductal papillomas. These are finger-like growths inside the ducts of the breast. They may cause pain, a lump, and a clear, sticky, or bloody discharge. On biopsy these are tough to distinguish from cancer, so when a needle biopsy shows a papilloma, they are usually removed surgically.

Managing benign breast disease

It’s important to watch for changes in your breasts and let your health care provider know if you notice anything unusual—even if it seems small. Your doctor can make a diagnosis and determine whether the change affects your breast cancer risk. And together, you can decide on next steps.

If your condition doesn’t raise your breast cancer risk and doesn’t bother you, you may not need to do anything at all. If it is bothersome, there are things you can do to feel better. For instance, mild discomfort caused by conditions like fibrocystic breast changes can often be managed with pain relievers or a supportive bra, while more painful cysts can be drained.

If your condition does raise your risk for breast cancer, your doctor may refer you to a risk assessment program, which can help determine your best options for cancer prevention. That might include more frequent screenings with mammograms, genetic testing, or taking medications that reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Fox Chase has a dedicated cancer risk assessment team that can help individuals and families learn if they may be at increased of many types of cancer. You can read more about the risk assessment program