Breast Cysts: 9 Things You Need To Know

When you feel a lump in your breast, it can immediately trigger a feeling of terror. Do I have breast cancer?

However, cysts are pretty common in breast tissue, and are benign (non-cancerous) more often than not. When you feel a cyst in your breast, remember to take a deep breath — the likelihood of it being a harmless sac of fluid is much greater than it being cancerous. In fact, over 80% of lumps are benign.

Knowing what to look for can help ease that anxiety, but always, always reach out to your doctor if you feel an unusual lump.

Here are some key facts to keep in mind about breast cysts.

1. How They Feel

Photo Credit: Flickr/tribp
Photo Credit: Flickr/tribp

A breast cyst has been likened to feeling like a grape or small water balloon. It will typically be a round or oval lump that is smooth. If you feel distinct edges, that’s a good thing — that often indicates it’s a benign cyst. It may feel soft or hard, and can be any size. They can feel painful or painless, and may grow or shrink in size depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle.

Cancerous lumps tend to be irregularly shaped or ragged, can be either firm or soft to the touch, and are typically not painful. Of the women who feel a painful lump in their breast, only between 2% and 7% of them will actually be diagnosed with breast cancer.

2. Mobility

Benign cysts are typically easily moveable. However, some cancerous lumps are also moveable, especially in their early stages. This is often a good sign, as cancerous lumps that are advanced and have spread to other areas of the breast typically feel fixed to one spot.

3. Other Symptoms

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/pathdoc
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/pathdoc

Some other symptoms that may occur include breast swelling, pain, lumpiness, or tenderness. You also may experience clear or cloudy fluid discharge from your nipple, or fluid that is yellow, straw-colored or dark brown. Symptoms will typically worsen right before your period starts, and may fluctuate throughout your cycle.

4. Fibrocystic Breast Changes

Formerly called Fibrocystic Breast Disease, the name was amended to “Changes” because it is not a disease at all, but a condition that many women experience. It includes two natural breast conditions occurring together: having fibrous tissue as well as benign cysts. Fibrous tissue refers to breast tissue that feels firm and rubbery, and may feel similar to ligaments and scar tissue. Your breasts may feel “rope-like” and tender, especially in the top area of the breast. The condition doesn’t increase your chance of breast cancer, and isn’t inherently harmful — however, having naturally lumpy breasts may make it more difficult to find lumps that may be cancerous.

5. Demographic

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/tashatuvango
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/tashatuvango

Breast cysts are common in women ages 35 to 50. They usually disappear after menopause, unless a woman is taking hormone therapy, but they can appear at any age. According to WebMD, about half of women in their 20s to 50s will have fibrocystic breast changes.

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6. Breast Cancer Risk

Women who have simple cysts in their breasts are not at an increased risk of breast cancer. However, cysts may make it more difficult to find new breast lumps that might need evaluation by your doctor.

7. Diagnosis

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/serhiibobyk
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/serhiibobyk

A breast exam will help the doctor determine if the lump is firm, irregular, and immobile, or raises other concerns. If so, an ultrasound is often done to assess if the lump is a cyst (fluid-filled) or solid. Some cysts can also be seen on mammograms, though they’re harder to see there than on an ultrasound if you have dense breast tissue.

If the lump appears solid or is a complex cyst (containing both fluid and solid parts), you will likely undergo a biopsy to evaluate the lump. If fluid is withdrawn and it’s clear, you won’t need further testing or treatment. If the fluid is bloody or the lump doesn’t shrink after the fluid is withdrawn, the sample may be sent off to a lab for further testing, and you may be referred to a radiologist or breast surgeon to determine if the lump is cancerous.

8. Causes

Cysts form when excess fluid builds up in the breast glands, but experts don’t know why this happens. Cysts can be of varying sizes. Microcysts are minuscule cysts with very little fluid build-up. You can’t feel them, and they are only found by looking through a microscope. Macrocysts are palpable and can grow as large as 1 or 2 inches wide, and form when fluid continues to build up if microcysts aren’t caught early. Because the size of cysts can fluctuate with your menstrual cycle, some researchers believe the cysts are caused by excess estrogen in the body.

9. Treatment

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/marcel
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/marcel

Simple cysts don’t pose any health risks, and no treatment is necessary unless the cyst is large and painful or causes discomfort. Doctors may use a fine needle biopsy to drain the cyst of fluid if it’s causing discomfort, and in rare cases you may opt to have surgery to get the cyst removed. In this case, mobile lumps are easier to remove surgically than fixed lumps. Oral contraceptives can also be used to level out hormones that may be causing painful cysts, but hormone therapy is generally avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Natural therapies include avoiding caffeine, reducing salt in your diet, wearing supportive bras, using over-the-counter pain relievers, or using a compress or heating pad to provide pain relief.

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