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Changes to your breasts

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 specialists ask you to.

Check with your specialist 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 lumpier than they did before.
  • If you are taking hormones (such as menopausal hormone therapy, birth control pills, or injections) your breasts may become denser. 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 fattier. 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.