Fibrocystic breast disease, commonly called fibrocystic breasts or fibrocystic change, is a benign (noncancerous) condition in which a woman has painful lumps in her breasts.
Fibrocystic breast disease isn’t dangerous, but it can be a bothersome condition because it can cause discomfort. The condition is common. Your doctor may not even refer to it as a “disease.” According to the Mayo Clinic, more than half of women will develop fibrocystic breast disease at some point in their lives.
Although it isn’t dangerous to have fibrocystic breasts, this condition can make the detection of breast cancer more challenging.
Your breast tissue changes in response to the hormones made by the ovaries. If you have fibrocystic breast disease, your breasts have more pronounced changes in response to these hormones. This results in swelling and tender or painful lumps. Symptoms are most common just before or during your period. You may feel lumps in your breasts caused by cysts (fluid-filled sacs) or swelling of your breast lobules (milk-producing glands). You may also feel a lumpy thickening in your breast caused by an excess growth of fibrous tissues.
Any woman can get fibrocystic breast disease, but it most commonly occurs in women in their 30s to 50s.
Birth control pills may reduce your symptoms, and hormone therapy may increase your symptoms. Symptoms typically improve or resolve after menopause.
Fibrocystic breast disease doesn’t increase your risk of getting cancer, but the changes in your breasts can make it more difficult for you or your doctor to identify potentially cancerous lumps during breast exams. If you have fibrocystic disease, your doctor also may have difficulty detecting breast cancer in mammogram studies. Some cysts in fibrocystic breasts look or feel like cancerous lumps and require a biopsy (a procedure that removes a small sample of tissue) to rule out cancer.
Because fibrocystic breast disease makes cancer more difficult to detect, you should visit your doctor regularly for breast exams. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women between ages 50 and 74 get a mammogram every two years. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also recommends that women perform regular breast self-exams. You should look for changes in your breasts. It’s important that you become familiar with how your breasts are normally so that you’ll know when there are changes or something doesn’t seem right.
If you have fibrocystic breast disease, you may experience swelling, tenderness, pain, a thickening of tissue, or lumps in one or both breasts. You may have more swelling or lumps in one breast than the other. Your symptoms probably get worse right before your period due to hormonal changes, but you may have symptoms throughout the month. The lumps in your breasts may also change in size throughout the month.
The lumps in fibrocystic breasts are usually movable but sometimes, if there’s a lot of fibrous tissue, you won’t be able to move the lumps. You may also experience pain under your arms. Some women have a green or dark brown discharge from their nipples. See your doctor immediately if clear, red, or bloody fluid comes out of your nipple because this may be a sign of breast cancer.
Your doctor can diagnose fibrocystic breast disease by doing a physical breast exam. Your doctor may also order a mammogram or ultrasound to get a better look at the changes in your breasts. If your doctor is concerned about the appearance of a cyst in your breast, they may perform a biopsy (usually by fine needle aspiration) to see if it’s cancerous.
Most women who have fibrocystic breast disease don’t require treatment. Home treatment is usually sufficient to relieve pain and discomfort. In rare cases, medical intervention is necessary.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can usually effectively relieve any pain and discomfort. You can also try wearing a well-fitting, supportive bra to reduce breast pain and tenderness. Some women find that applying warm or cold compresses relieves their symptoms. Try applying a warm cloth or ice wrapped in a cloth to your breasts to see which works best for you.
Medical treatment is rarely needed. If your pain symptoms are severe, you may need treatment from your doctor to relieve your symptoms. There are a number of treatments available:
- Birth control pills or hormones can help reduce the changes in your breasts caused by hormones.
- Fine needle aspiration, a surgical procedure to remove the fluid from the cyst using a needle, can relieve pain caused by large cysts.
- Surgical removal of the cyst, or lumpectomy, may be necessary if fine needle aspiration doesn’t relieve your symptoms.
Some people believe that limiting their caffeine intake, eating a low-fat diet, or taking essential fatty acid supplements will reduce the symptoms of fibrocystic breast disease. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that these or any dietary changes are effective at relieving symptoms.
Call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms because they may be signs of breast cancer:
- new or different lumps in your breasts
- redness or puckering of the skin on your breasts
- discharge from your nipple, especially if it’s clear, red, or bloody
- an indentation or flattening of your nipple
According to the Mayo Clinic, the specific cause of fibrocystic breast disease and breast changes isn’t fully understood. However, doctors suspect that estrogen and other reproductive hormones play a role. As a result, your symptoms will likely disappear once you reach menopause and the fluctuation and production of these hormones decreases and stabilizes.