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Overview of Breast Disorders

by Mary Ann Kosir, MD

Breast disorders may be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Most are noncancerous and not life threatening. Often, they do not require treatment. In contrast, breast cancer can mean loss of a breast or of life. Thus, for many women, breast cancer is their worst fear. However, potential problems can be detected early when women regularly examine their breasts themselves, are examined regularly by their doctor, and have mammograms as recommended. Early detection of breast cancer is essential to successful treatment.


Symptoms related to the breast are common. They are the reason for more than 15 million visits to the doctor each year. These symptoms include breast pain (see Breast Pain (Mastalgia)), lumps (see Breast Lumps), and a discharge from the nipple (see Nipple Discharge). Also, the breast’s skin may become pitted, puckered, red, thickened, or dimpled.

Inside the Breast

The female breast is composed of milk-producing glands (lobules) surrounded by fatty tissue and some connective tissue. Milk secreted by the glands flows through ducts to the nipple. Around the nipple is an area of pigmented skin called the areola.

Breast symptoms do not necessarily mean that a woman has breast cancer or another serious disorder. For example, monthly breast tenderness that is related to hormonal changes before a menstrual period does not indicate a serious disorder. However, women should examine their breasts once a month (see Figure: How to Do a Breast Self-Examination) and should see their doctor if they observe any change in a breast, particularly any of the following:

  • A lump that feels distinctly different from other breast tissue

  • A lump that is stuck to the skin or chest wall

  • A lump that does not go away

  • Swelling that does not go away

  • Pitting, puckering, reddening, thickening, or dimpling in the skin of the breast

  • Scaly skin around the nipple

  • Changes in the shape of the breast

  • Changes in the nipple, such as turning inward

  • Discharge from the nipple, especially if it is bloody and/or occurs spontaneously (that is, without the nipple's being squeezed or stimulated by other means)

Common Breast Symptoms




Breast pain

Hormonal changes related to menstrual periods, pregnancy, or use of hormonal drugs


Breast infections*

Fibrocystic changes

Large breasts that stretch supporting tissues

Very rarely, breast cancer

Pain that occurs throughout both breasts is usually caused by hormonal changes related to menstrual periods.

Breast lumps

Breast infections, including abscesses*



Fibrocystic changes

Galactocele (a clogged milk duct)

Scar tissue that develops after an injury

Breast cancer

Lumps in the breasts are relatively common and are usually not cancerous.

Because cancerous and noncancerous lumps are hard to distinguish during a physical examination, tests are usually done.

Nipple discharge

Most commonly, noncancerous milk duct tumors (intraductal papilloma)

Breast cancer

Breast infections, including abscesses*

Fibrocystic changes

Other disorders, such as pituitary, brain, or thyroid disorders)

A nipple discharge occurs normally sometimes—for example during milk production after childbirth.

Abnormal discharges vary in appearance depending on the cause.

*Breast infections are very rare except during the first few weeks after childbirth.


Doctors ask the woman about the symptoms she is having and other information related to possible causes, including

  • What the symptoms are

  • How long the woman has had the symptoms

  • Whether the symptoms occur at certain times of the month (related to the menstrual cycle)

  • Whether she is pregnant

  • What drugs she is taking

  • Whether she or a family member has had breast cancer

  • When she had her last mammogram and what the results were

A breast examination is done. With the woman sitting or lying down, the doctor inspects the breasts for irregularities in shape, a nipple that turns inward (inverted nipple), and lumps. The doctor also checks for dimpling, thickening, redness, or tightening of the skin over the breast. The nipples are squeezed to check for a discharge. The armpits are checked for enlarged lymph nodes.

The doctor may examine the breast and armpits with the woman in different positions. For example, while sitting, she may be asked to press her palms together in front of the forehead. This position makes the chest muscles contract and makes subtle changes in the breast more noticeable.

The doctor may review the technique for breast self-examination with the woman during the examination. Techniques for the doctor's examination and self-examination are similar (see How to Do a Breast Self-Examination).


Imaging tests are used to check for abnormalities before they are noticed (called screening) and to evaluate abnormalities that have been identified (see Breast Cancer : Screening).

Mammography involves taking x-rays of both breasts. A low dose of radiation is used. Only about 10 to 15% of abnormalities detected by mammography result from cancer. Mammography is more accurate in older women because as women age, the amount of fatty tissue increases, and abnormal tissue is easier to distinguish from fatty tissue than other kinds of breast tissue.

Mammography is usually recommended every year for all women aged 50 and over and every 1 or 2 years for all women aged 40 to 49 to check for breast abnormalities. However, experts debate whether this recommendation is appropriate for all women aged 40 to 49 because the benefit of screening is not as clear (see Breast Cancer: When to Start Screening?). For example, one large study of women aged 40 to 59 found that having an annual mammogram was no more effective in reducing the risk of dying of breast cancer than usual care by a health care practitioner.

Mammography may also be done if a woman or doctor finds a lump while examining the breasts or if a woman has breast pain or a discharge from the nipple. It can provide images of any abnormalities (such as a tumor or an abscess) and the tissues around the abnormality. It can also provide images of lymph nodes to check for abnormalities.

Ultrasonography can provide more information about abnormalities detected by mammography. For example, ultrasonography can show whether a lump is solid or is filled with fluid (a cyst). Cysts are rarely cancerous. Ultrasonography can also be used to help doctors insert a biopsy needle into the abnormal tissue.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is done at the same time as mammography to screen women if they have an increased risk of developing breast cancer—for example, if they have a mutation in the gene for breast cancer (the BRCA gene). After breast cancer is diagnosed, MRI is used to identify abnormal lymph nodes and to determine the size and number of tumors. This information can help doctors plan surgery or other treatments.

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