Breast Lumps, Bumps and Pain: What's Normal and What's Not

Learning to distinguish your breasts' normal lumps is key to your long-term health. Here's how

Photograph: Andrey Myagkov/Shutterstock.com

What to do: Don't risk it -- ask your doctor or gynecologist for a clinical breast exam and consider a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. All lumps should be carefully monitored for changes since they put you at increased risk for breast cancer. Be diligent about regular self-exams and yearly clinical exams. Report any changes immediately to your doctor.

A FIRM, UNMOVABLE LUMP
What it is: This is usually a symptom of breast cancer. While benign breast lumps -- sacks of fluid or lumps of fat, move with the breast, cancers defy gravity. Thickened or dimpled skin is a sign of a lump that's unmoveable -- and a cause for concern.

What to do: First, remember that 90 percent of women who catch breast cancer early survive. But to be one of them, you must get a proper diagnosis and treatment. See your doctor. She will examine you thoroughly, then follow up with a mammogram. If there's a possibility that it's cancer, she may perform a needle biopsy, inserting a small needle into the lump to retrieve a cell sample to be reviewed by a pathologist for a diagnosis.

In addition to lumps, there are several other conditions to look out for:

THICKENED AND/OR DIMPLED SKIN
What it is: This is usually a symptom of breast cancer. Cancers defy gravity. Unlike benign conditions, they don't move with the breast, resulting in puckered or bulging skin.

What to do: First, remember that 90 percent of women who catch breast cancer early survive. But to be one of them, you must get a proper diagnosis and treatment. See your doctor. She will examine you thoroughly, then follow up with a mammogram. If there's a possibility that it's cancer, she may perform a needle biopsy, inserting a small needle into the lump to retrieve a cell sample to be reviewed by a pathologist for diagnosis.

GENERAL BREAST PAIN
What it is: General pain and tenderness in both breasts is a common occurrence. It's sometimes accompanied by swelling due to water retention, occurring about two weeks before monthly menstruation and subsiding afterward. This is usually normal -- pain caused by hormonal changes in the monthly cycle.

What to do: Cut down on salt and fat intake to help reduce the swelling and tenderness, and keep your system hydrated by drinking lots of water. A good dose of exercise can help, too; it pushes out excess fluids and gives you a kick of endorphins, feel-good chemicals that give you an overall boost.

PERSISTENT PAIN
What it is: This pain is different than cyclical breast pain in that it's located in a specific spot and does not come and go with the monthly cycle. Sometimes -- but not often -- it can indicate cancer. It may be the result of a cyst or physical injury.

What to do: See your doctor. She will examine you thoroughly to determine the cause. If she suspects it's a problem, she'll then follow up with a mammogram. If there's a possibility that it's cancer, she may perform a needle biopsy, inserting a small needle into the lump to retrieve a cell sample to be reviewed by a pathologist for diagnosis.

A SCALY OR TENDER NIPPLE
What it is: An open, itchy sore on one nipple that resembles eczema. It could be a simple skin irritation. In a few women, this is a sign of Paget's disease, a rare form of breast cancer.

What to do: If this condition does not respond to over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream and persists for more than a week, see your doctor immediately. She will examine you and may perform a mammogram and a special type of biopsy designed for the nipple.

NIPPLE DISCHARGE
What it is: Persistent clear or bloody discharge from one nipple may indicate cancer or a precancerous condition in one of your breast ducts. If the discharge is gray, brown, green or white and comes from both nipples, it's usually a normal response to pressure on the breasts.

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