Karen learned she had fibrocystic breasts years ago. At the time, her doctor had used the term fibrocystic breast disease but assured her that the condition was harmless. Karen learned to cope, but when her breasts felt lumpy and tender, she couldn’t help worrying that her symptoms could be signs of cancer.
More than half of women between ages 30 and 50 have symptoms of fibrocystic breasts. Now that doctors know the condition is more common than once thought, they refer to it as fibrocystic breast changes. These changes include cysts, or fluid-filled sacs, lumpiness and areas of thickened or rubbery tissue similar to scar tissue, along with tenderness or pain. Because these symptoms may resemble those of breast cancer, they can be disturbing to women who have them.
Doctors associate fibrocystic changes with hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle. Cysts tend to become more noticeable and swelling more obvious right before a woman’s period, but symptoms improve soon after menstruation. They include:
- breast tissue that is dense, irregular and bumpy, often in the outer upper portion of breasts
- breast discomfort that can be persistent or occur intermittently
- dull, heavy pain
- tenderness and swelling
While cysts can disappear by themselves, women often find that they no longer experience fibrocystic changes after menopause. (Women on hormone replacement therapy may continue to experience symptoms.)
Your doctor can usually diagnose fibrocystic breast changes during a clinical breast exam. He or she may order a mammogram or breast ultrasound depending on the exam results and your personal and family medical history. If an abnormality is detected, your doctor may order further testing to examine breast tissue or fluid.
Karen’s fear of cancer was calmed when she began following her doctor’s recommendation to perform monthly breast self-exams. Since she’s now familiar with how her breasts feel, Karen is capable of recognizing suspicious new lumps or changes. She also sees her doctor for regular clinical breast exams, and now that she’s over 40, gets regular mammograms as her doctor instructs. By being conscientious about her screening schedule, Karen can allow herself more peace of mind.