Fibrocystic breast disease—also called fibrocystic breasts or fibrocystic change—is a benign (noncancerous) condition in which a woman has painful lumps in her breasts.
The word disease may sound frightening, but fibrocystic breast disease is not dangerous; it is more of a bothersome condition because it can cause discomfort. The condition is common. The Washington University School of Medicine estimates that approximately 60 percent of women develop fibrocystic breast disease at some point in their lives (Wash).
Although fibrocystic breasts are not dangerous, the condition can make the detection of breast cancer more difficult.
Women’s breast tissues change in response to the natural hormones that their ovaries produce. If you have fibrocystic breast disease, your breasts have more pronounced changes in response to the hormones, which 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 tissues caused by the excess growth of fibrous tissues in your breasts.
Any woman can get fibrocystic breast disease. It is most common in women who are in their thirties to fifties.
Birth control pills may reduce your symptoms, while hormone therapy may increase your symptoms. Symptoms typically improve after menopause.
Fibrocystic breast disease does not increase your risk of getting cancer, but the changes in your breasts can make it more difficult for you or your doctor to detect cancerous lumps during breast exams. Your doctor also may experience difficulty identifying breast cancer in mammogram films. Some cysts in fibrocystic breasts look or feel like cancerous lumps and require a biopsy (a procedure where a small sample of tissue is removed) 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 recommends that women age 50 and older should have a mammogram every one to two years (USPSTF). The National Cancer Institute also recommends that women start breast self-exams in their twenties (NCI). What you should be looking for are changes. To that end, it is important that you become familiar with how your breasts are normally, so that you will 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 all month. The lumps in your breasts may change size throughout the month.
Usually, the lumps in fibrocystic breasts are movable but sometimes, if there is a lot of fibrous tissue, you will not 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 it may be a sign of breast cancer.
Your doctor can diagnose fibrocystic breast disease by doing a physical breast examination. 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, he may perform a biopsy to see if it is cancerous.
Most women who have fibrocystic breast disease do not 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) are usually effective at relieving the pain and discomfort experienced with fibrocystic breast disease. 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.
If your pain symptoms are severe, you may need treatment from your doctor to relieve your symptoms. Medical treatment is rarely needed. Treatments your doctor may provide include:
- Birth control pills or hormones can help reduce the changes in your breasts caused by hormones.
- Fine-needle aspiration, which is a surgical procedure to remove the fluid from the cyst using a needle, which can relieve pain that is caused by large cysts.
- Surgical removal of the cyst may be needed if fine-needle aspiration does not relieve your symptoms.
Some people believe that limiting caffeine intake, eating a low-fat diet, or taking essential fatty acid supplements, will reduce symptoms of fibrocystic breast disease; however, there is 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
- discharge from your nipple, especially if it is clear, red, or bloody
- redness or puckering of the skin on your breasts
- your nipple becomes indented or flattened
According to the Mayo Clinic, the specific cause of fibrocystic breast disease and breast changes isn’t fully understood. However, they 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.