Breast disorders may be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Most are noncancerous and not life threatening. Often, they do not require treatment. In contrast, breast cancer can mean loss of a breast or of life. Thus, for many women, breast cancer is their worst fear. However, potential problems can often be detected early when women do the following:
Are examined regularly by their doctor
Have mammograms as recommended
Early detection of breast cancer can be essential to successful treatment.
Women should be familiar with how their breasts and nipples normally look and feel, and men should also be aware of changes in or around their nipples. If a woman notices a change, she may want to do a breast self-examination. Women should report any changes to a health care practitioner right away. Most medical organizations no longer recommend monthly or weekly breast self-examinations as a routine way to check for cancer. Doing these examinations when there is no lump or other change does not help detect breast cancer early in women who get regular screening mammograms.
Symptoms of Breast Diseases
Symptoms related to the breast are common. They are the reason for more than 15 million visits to the doctor each year. These symptoms include:
A discharge from the nipple
Changes in the breast's skin (for example, the breast's skin may become pitted, puckered, red, thickened, or dimpled)
Breast symptoms do not necessarily mean that a woman has breast cancer or another serious disorder. For example, monthly breast tenderness that is related to hormonal changes before a menstrual period does not indicate a serious disorder. However, women should see their doctor if they observe any change in a breast, particularly any of the following:
A lump or thickened area that feels distinctly different from other breast tissue
A lump that is stuck to the skin or chest wall
A lump that does not go away
Swelling that does not go away
Pitting, puckering, reddening, thickening, or dimpling in the skin of the breast
Scaly skin around the nipple
Changes in the shape of the breast
Changes in the nipple, such as being pulled inward
Discharge from the nipple, especially if it is bloody and/or occurs spontaneously (that is, without the nipple's being squeezed or stimulated by other means)
A breast examination is done. With the woman sitting or lying down, we inspect the breasts for irregularities in shape, a nipple that turns inward (inverted nipple), and lumps. We also check for dimpling, thickening, redness, or tightening of the skin over the breast. We apply pressure around the nipples to check for a discharge. The discharge is examined to determine whether it contains blood. The armpits are checked for enlarged lymph nodes.
We may examine the breast and armpits with the woman in different positions. For example, while sitting, you may be asked to press your palms together in front of the forehead. This position makes the chest muscles contract and makes subtle changes in the breast more noticeable.