Understanding Breast Changes: A Health Guide for All Women

breast xray

Breast Basics

The breast is a gland that produces milk in late pregnancy and after childbirth.

The Breast

What are breasts made of?

  • Each breast is made of lobes.
  • Lobes are groups of milk glands called lobules.
  • Lobules are arranged around thin tubes called ducts.
  • Ducts carry the milk to the nipple.
  • These lobules and ducts make up the glandular tissue.

What is the lymphatic system?

The breasts also contain lymph vessels, which carry a clear fluid called lymph.

  • The lymph vessels lead to small, round organs called lymph nodes. Groups of lymph nodes are found near the breast in the underarm, above the collarbone, in the chest behind the breastbone, and in many other parts of the body.
  • The lymph nodes trap bacteria, cancer cells, or other harmful substances that may be in the lymphatic system. Their job is to make sure harmful substances are safely removed from the body.
See your health care provider about a breast change when you have:
  • A lump in or near your breast or under your arm
  • Thick or firm tissue in or near your breast or under your arm
  • Nipple discharge or tenderness
  • A nipple pulled back (inverted) into the breast
  • Itching or skin changes such as redness, scales, dimples, or puckers
  • A change in breast size or shape

If you notice a lump in one breast, check the other breast. If both breasts feel the same, it may be normal. You should still see your health care provider for a clinical breast exam to see if more tests are needed.

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Types of Breast Changes

Breast changes occur in almost all women. Most of these changes are not cancer. However, some breast changes may be signs of cancer. Breast changes that are not cancer are called benign. For more information on benign breast changes that are more likely to happen during certain times of your life, see Breast Changes During Your Lifetime That Are Not Cancer.

Lumpiness

Most women have some type of lumpiness in their breasts. Some areas may be more dense than others and can feel lumpy in an exam. What you are feeling may be glandular breast tissue.

Breast Changes Due to Your Period

Many women have swelling, tenderness, and pain in their breasts before and sometimes during their periods. You may also feel one or more lumps during this time because of extra fluid in your breasts.

Because some lumps are caused by normal hormone changes, your health care provider may suggest watching the lump for a month or two to see if it changes or goes away.

Single Lumps

Single lumps can appear at any time and come in various types and sizes. Most lumps are not cancer, but your health care provider should always check the lump carefully. He or she may do more tests to make sure the lump is not cancer. See Chart 1: Possible Mammogram Results and Follow-Up Care for more information about these types of lumps.

Check with your health care provider if you notice any kind of lump. Even if you had a lump in the past that turned out to be benign, you can’t be sure that a new lump is also benign.

Nipple Discharge

Nipple discharge is common for some women. It is fluid that comes from the nipple in different colors or textures. Usually, it is not a sign of cancer. For example, birth control pills and other medicines, such as sedatives, can cause a little discharge. Certain infections also cause nipple discharge. However, for women who are going through or have passed menopause, nipple discharge can be a sign of cancer.

See your doctor if you have nipple discharge for the first time, or a change in your discharge’s color or texture. He or she may send a sample of the discharge to be checked at a lab.

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