The truth is many of us women fear breast cancer. We may have seen loved ones battle against breast cancer or have known someone who has been affected by it. The truth is, when it comes to our breasts, we do not know much about how to assess the health of our breast tissue. How do we know if a lump we feel is cancerous or not, or if it is even a lump!? Here are some common breast conditions that are not cancerous but important to be able to distinguish.
Fibroadenomas are non-cancerous breast tumors that more commonly effect women in their 20s and 30s. These tumors are made up of glandular breast tissue as well as stromal (connective) tissue. Fibroadenomas tend to be round and feel like a marble within the breast. The borders of a fibroadenoma feel distinct from the surrounding breast tissue. On palpating (feeling) them they move underneath the surface and tend to not be tender. A woman can have one or several fibroadenomas. A doctor may feel a fibroadenoma while performing a breast exam and therefore might order a breast ultrasound, mammogram, fine needle aspiration or biopsy to confirm findings. Treatment for a fibroadenoma may not be indicated and it is possible that they can decrease or disappear on their own. If there is indication that treatment is needed, surgery could be performed to remove the benign tumor. It is important to monitor the adenomas with self-breast exams every month and if any changes occur see your doctor for another breast exam.
In fibrocystic changes, also known as fibrocystic breast disease, breast tissue feels tender and/or lumpy. This kind of breast tissue change happens to many women at some point in their life. The lumpiness and tenderness is due to hormonal changes and may worsen right before your menses starts. It is thought that more prominent estrogen that progesterone attributes to this condition. According to Dr. Tori Hudson, “other women may have average amounts of progesterone but increased tissue sensitivity to estrogen with related fluid retention.” These symptoms usually resolve with menses. If you are a women taking exogenous estrogen such as oral contraceptives or estrogen replacement therapy, you may experience these breast tissue changes as well. When trying to distinguish between a fibroadenoma and fibrocystic breast changes, palpate your breasts before menses and a week after menses and note any changes in the size or quality of lumps you notice. If your breast tissue is less lumpy and/or tender after your menses then it is more likely that you are experiencing fibrocystic breast changes. If the lump remains about the same size after menses then it is likely you have a fibroadenoma. To be sure, schedule a breast exam with your doctor.
Mastalgia by definition is simply breast pain. The type of pain can vary and can be breast tenderness, sharp burning pain, or tightness in the breast tissue. There are two types of mastalgia: cyclical and non-cyclical. Cyclical mastaglia is the more common of the two and the pain is due to hormones, specifically excess estrogen. Breast pain may also be due to old trauma, infection, and sometimes conditions associated with the chest wall. Premenopausal women may experience palpable cysts in association with their menstrual cycle. Often this condition does not need treatment and resolve over time. If the pain is severe, does not lessen, or there are other worrisome signs, make an appointment with your doctor.
Other Benign Breast Conditions
Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue that most often occurs in nursing mothers. Essentially, mastitis is caused by breast milk being blocked in the breast duct or lobule which then leads milk to backup and cause an infection. Milk can become blocked if breast feeding is skipped, there is a change in the feeding pattern, bras are too tight, or if there is abrupt weening. Common treatment for this condition is antibiotics, but there are several natural treatments that work if treated right away. See a doctor right away if the infection worsens or you spike a fever.
Fat necrosis can occur if there is an injury to the breast tissue. The injured breast tissue will heal and form a scar that can feel like a lump. A biopsy is usually indicated to confirm that the lump is non-cancerous. Sometimes instead of scar tissue, an oil cyst will form in the area where the trauma occurred. The cyst can be drained using fine-needle aspiration.
Mammary duct ectasia most commonly affects women in their 40s and 50s. This condition presents with green, black, thick or sticky breast discharge from the nipple. The area around the nipple can be tender and red. Duct ectasia can cause a hard lump that will need to be biopsied to confirm that it is non-cancerous. Although it is not completely known what causes duct ectasia, it is thought that as you age your breast tissue changes from mostly glandular tissue to fatty tissue and these normal changes can cause milk ducts to become inflamed.
Feel your own boobs!
Perform a self-breast exam every month about 1 week after your menstrual cycle. Ask your doctor or gynecologist for a self-breast exam card that you can hang in your shower or keep near your bathroom mirror. Be thorough when performing the self-breast exam, taking your time to feel all breast tissue especially in the axillary area (underarm). Look for changes in the color and texture of your breast tissue as well as check for any nipple discharge. If you notice a lump, tenderness, pain or discharge, write your observations down being sure to note which breast and what part of the breast so you can be sure to tell your doctor.
Say goodbye to coffee
When it comes to fibrocystic breast changes it is best to kiss coffee and all forms of caffeine goodbye. Some research shows that removing caffeinated foods and beverages from your diet helps fibrocystic breast changes. Other research does not support this finding, therefore I recommend you trying removing all caffeine from your diet for 4 to 6 months and see if you notice a difference in your breast tissue. If you need to replace your morning cup of Joe with another tasty beverage try Teechino herbal tea which tastes rich and nutty like coffee.
Castor oil packs
Previously in the article I mentioned how hormones could be causing breast tenderness and tissue changes. One way to help the body process hormones more efficiently is by utilizing castor oil packs over the liver area of your abdomen. Castor oil packs applied over the liver area can help the lymphatic system in that area move better therefore helping the liver process hormones more efficiently. I recommend doing a castor oil pack over the liver 5 times a week for 30-45 minutes. You can do this while lying in bed reading a book just before you prepare for a shower. E-mail me to get a castor oil pack handout for free!
Dr. Tori Hudson explains in an article linked below that evening primrose oil in research studies has shown to decrease pain and tenderness in women with cyclical and non-cyclical mastalgia. Another herb to be considered for its hormonal support is vitex. Vitex can help balance estrogen and progesterone which in turn can lessen the breast symptoms associated with excess estrogen. Lastly, I recommend phytolacca for benign growths as well as mastitis. Phytolacca should be used with caution as it can potentially be harmful so consult a licensed naturopath or an experienced herbalist before using it to treat any condition. For more information on which specific supplement brands I recommend and on how to dose these herbs please contact me.
· Clean up your diet, meaning: no junk food, no refined sugar, more fresh fruits and vegetables and less packaged and artificial foods. Also drink plenty of clean water every day!
· Designated no bra time, meaning: stop wearing bras around the house or places you may not need to wear one. Look for bras without underwire and ones made of more natural and breathable fibers. Be sure to get a bra that fits and is not too tight.
· Dry lymph brushing! Get yourself a dry brush with natural bristles and use the dry lymph brushing technique at least 3 times a week before you shower. This will help move your lymphatic system better and benefit your breast since breast tissue is surround by a large network of lymphatic tissue.
· Stop using regular antiperspirants and deodorants with chemical fragrances and added colors. Switch to an all-natural deodorant with essential oils and soothing botanicals. Here is a great article on why you should switch to all-natural deodorants
Dr. Lauren Sanchez, ND