Fibrocystic breast disease, commonly called fibrocystic breasts or fibrocystic change, is a benign (noncancerous) condition in which the breasts feel lumpy.
Fibrocystic breasts aren’t harmful or dangerous, but may be bothersome or uncomfortable for some women. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than half of women will develop fibrocystic breast disease at some point in their lives. Many women with fibrocystic breasts will not have any associated symptoms.
Although it isn’t harmful 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 breasts, you may have more pronounced changes in response to these hormones. This can result in swelling and tender or painful breast lumps. Symptoms are most common just before or during your period. In addition to lumps in your breasts caused by cysts and swelling of your breast lobules, the milk-producing glands, you may also feel a lumpy thickening in your breast caused by an excess growth of fibrous tissue.
Any woman can get fibrocystic breast disease, but it most commonly occurs in women in their 30s to 50s.
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 and on mammograms.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women between 50 and 74 years old get a mammogram every two years. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also notes that regular breast self-exams can be helpful. It’s important that you become familiar with how your breasts look and feel 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 the following symptoms:
- a thickening of tissue
- lumps in one or both breasts
You may have more swelling or lumps in one breast than the other. Your symptoms will probably be worse right before your period due to hormonal changes, but you may have symptoms throughout the month.
The lumps in fibrocystic breasts tend to fluctuate in size throughout the month and are usually movable. But sometimes if there’s a lot of fibrous tissue, the lumps may be more fixed in one place. 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, as 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, ultrasound, or MRI to get a better look at the changes in your breasts. John Hopkins recommends a digital mammogram for women with fibrocystic breasts, as this technology allows for more accurate breast imaging. In some cases, ultrasound may help distinguish normal breast tissue from abnormalities. If your doctor is concerned about the appearance of a cyst or other finding in your breast, they may order a biopsy to see if it’s cancerous. This biopsy is usually performed by fine needle aspiration, a surgical procedure to remove the fluid or tissue using a small needle.
Most women who have fibrocystic breast disease don’t require invasive treatment. Home treatment is usually sufficient to relieve associated pain and discomfort.
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.
Some people have found 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 randomized controlled studies that show that these or any dietary changes are effective at relieving symptoms.
Call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms. They may be signs of breast cancer:
- new or unusual 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 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, as the fluctuation and production of these hormones decreases and stabilizes.