Changes in the breast can be caused by benign factors or cancer, and some benign changes actually can increase your risk of breast cancer. Even though most breast lumps turn out to be non-malignant, some don't -- and all breast lumps require medical follow-up.
"When I found the small lump in my right breast, I was told not to worry because it was common for women to have lumpy breasts," recalls Audrey Graves, a Nebraska wife and mom who was diagnosed with cancer at age 29. "Even my doctor told me not to worry because he felt there was a 99 percent chance the lump was nothing." A biopsy confirmed that the lump was indeed breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the most common causes of breast lumps are benign and may be due to infection, monthly or age-related hormone changes, birth control pills, cysts and fibrocystic changes.
Types of benign breast lumps include:
Other breast lumps may be due to changes in the breast leading to breast cancer.
When a breast lump is detected, follow-up screening is required to determine the cause. A mammogram, biopsy, ultrasound or other testing will be done to rule out breast cancer and plan an appropriate treatment of benign or cancer-related lumps. Treatment depends on the type of lump.
Typically, fibrocystic breast changes do not require clinical treatment. Fine-needle aspiration removes the fluid and is often done as part of a cyst biopsy. Fibroadenomas and intraductal papillomas can be removed surgically. Breast lumps due to mastitis usually go away after treatment with hot compresses, warm showers and antibiotics.
When a breast lump is determined to be breast cancer, a number of treatment options are available, depending on the type of cancer, location, stage of severity, general health and age. Breast cancer is usually treated surgically and then followed up by radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy.
Treatment typically includes one or several protocols:
Regardless of your initial diagnosis and treatment plan, keep in mind that your healthcare team may need to change your plan once treatment starts. "Before my bilateral masectomies, I had no thought of needing chemotherapy," says Dana Hooper, a 31-year-old breast cancer survivor from Arizona. "But that changed once I was diagnosed with an invasive form of breast cancer. In order for the doctors to feel more confident about zapping any cancer cells that could get loose, chemotherapy was recommended. Despite the horrifying prospect, I recognized that a few months of my life getting chemotherapy and dealing with the side effects would be worth what it was giving me."
Many benign breast lumps are due to changes in the body and may form without any other symptoms. If you have a history of benign breast lumps or are concerned that you may develop them, ask your doctor for tips on prevention.
To date, there are no proven ways to prevent malignant breast lumps, but experts say you can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer:
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