If a doctor detects a breast lesion, it’s understandable to be concerned. However, noncancerous breast conditions like lesions are considered very common.

According to the American Cancer Society, most females develop noncancerous breast conditions at some point in their lives. And while most of these conditions aren’t life threatening, some are linked with a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

In this article, we discuss what a breast lesion is, what causes them to develop, and whether a noncancerous lesion is at risk of becoming cancerous. We also review treatment options for breast lesions.

A breast lesion refers to an area of abnormal breast tissue. These are relatively common findings. In fact, it’s estimated that at least 20 percent of females may develop breast lesions, though males may also be affected.

A doctor may discover a breast lesion during an imaging test, such as a routine mammogram, or an ultrasound that was initially ordered for another reason. A doctor or nurse may also discover a breast lesion during a physical exam.

In some cases, breast lesions may be self-detected. You might feel an unusual lump or bump during a monthly breast self-examination. Depending on the type of lesion, such abnormal areas of breast tissue may feel rubbery or firm to the touch. Sometimes a breast lesion may cause pain, along with skin changes and nipple discharge.

If you detect any lumps, pain, or other changes in your breasts, it’s important to talk with a doctor right away. They may order additional diagnostic exams, such as imaging tests, to help determine whether the lesion is cancerous (malignant), and if treatment is required.

While a doctor will certainly want to rule out cancer, the good news is that most breast lesions are noncancerous (benign), especially in females under the age of 35.

Sometimes noncancerous breast lesions may cause pain, changes in tissues, and nipple discharge. Also, while these benign lesions are unlikely to be life threatening, your doctor may monitor them for possible signs of malignancy in the future.

Examples of benign breast conditions include:

  • Adenosis: which may cause larger and more numerous milk-producing glands called lobules
  • Duct ectasia: which enlarges the milk ducts
  • Ductal/lobular hyperplasia: which may cause the overgrowth of duct or lobule cells
  • Fat necrosis: a type of scar tissue that may develop after an injury or trauma
  • Fibroadenoma: a common type of lesion made up of connective and glandular breast tissues
  • Fibrocystic changes: which can occur within fibrous breast tissues
  • Intraductal papilloma: a type of benign wart-like growth in the milk ducts
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS): which involves the growth of cancerous cells outside lobular tissues that don’t make their way past their cellular walls
  • Mastitis: a type of breast infection
  • Phyllodes tumor: which begins within connective tissues rather than the glands or ducts
  • Radial scars: which don’t cause symptoms, but may show up during diagnostic testing for other breast conditions

Can noncancerous lesions develop into cancer?

While most cases of benign breast lesions do not become cancerous, sclerosing adenosis carries up to two times the risk of future malignancy. LCIS may also increase your risk of future breast cancer.

Possible signs of malignancy may include irregular shape or margins, which are typically highlighted on imaging tests. Cancerous breast lumps tend to be more common in females who are either perimenopausal or postmenopausal, though breast cancer may develop in other cases.

Also, it’s important to know that benign growths tend to be referred to as lesions, while cancerous growths in the breast are called carcinomas.

Possible causes and risk factors for breast lesions may include:

You may also be more likely to experience swollen or “lumpy” feeling breast during the premenstrual phase of your monthly cycle. However, menstrual-related tenderness and swelling tends to go down while true breast lesions remain in place.

A breast lesion may first be found on an imaging test that was initially ordered for another purpose. In other cases, the lesion may be found via self- or clinical exam, which can then be confirmed through breast imaging tests.

Thus, breast lesions may be diagnosed with a combination of the following:

  • Physical exam: This will include a breast exam from a doctor.
  • Mammogram: This low-dose X-ray is the preferred imaging method for evaluating breast lesions, with an estimated sensitivity rate of 93 percent. In some cases, breast lesions may be first detected via a routine mammogram.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): If you have a higher-than-average risk for breast cancer, a doctor may recommend this test in addition to a mammogram.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: This type of imaging test may be useful in cases where suspected lesions are located deep within the chest wall, or if your breasts are denser.
  • Ultrasound: Like a CT scan, an ultrasound may be beneficial in the case of dense breast tissue, though this imaging test may carry a high false-positive rate.

In some cases, a doctor may also follow up physical and imaging tests with a biopsy. This involves a process called fine needle aspiration (FNA), where a small needle is inserted into the lesion and a sample is collected to send off for further lab analysis. If a doctor suspects the lesion may be malignant, a core needle biopsy may be used instead.

Researchers estimate that about 60 percent of all breast lesion biopsies are benign.

Treatment for breast lesions depends on your age, the size of the lesion, and whether the tissue is changing.

Options may include:

  • a wait-and-see approach, especially in younger females
  • aspiration to remove fluids inside the lesion
  • surgical removal in older females, or if diagnostic testing reveals possible signs of cancer, or the results are inconclusive

Additionally, it’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for breast cancer screenings.

Females 50 to 74 years old should have a mammogram every 2 years. If you’re under the age of 50 and are considered at higher risk, talk with a doctor about when and how often you should undergo screening.

Breast lesions are extremely common occurrences, and these growths are usually benign.

There are numerous types of lesions that may develop, with some producing symptoms, such as pain and swelling, with others showing no symptoms at all.

It’s important to report any changes in your breasts to a doctor to determine whether you require any additional screenings or treatments. Certain lesions may also require careful monitoring depending on your age and other risk factors for breast cancer.