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Health Library - Breasts

Most women experience breast changes at some time. Your age, hormone levels and medicines you take may cause lumps, bumps and discharges.

If you have a breast lump, pain, discharge or skin irritation, see your health care provider. Minor and serious breast problems have similar symptoms. Although many women fear cancer, most breast problems are not cancer.

Some common causes of breast changes are:

  • Fibrocystic breast condition - lumpiness, thickening and swelling, often associated with a woman's period
  • Cysts - fluid-filled lumps
  • Fibroadenomas - solid, round, rubbery lumps that move easily when pushed, occurring most in younger women
  • Intraductal papillomas - growths similar to warts near the nipple
  • Blocked or clogged milk ducts
  • Milk production when a woman is not breastfeeding
  • Injury

Breasts Disorders:

  • Breast Cancer

Breast cancer affects one in eight women during their lives. Breast cancer kills more women in the United States than any cancer except lung cancer. No one knows why some women get breast cancer, but there are a number of risk factors. Risks that you cannot change include

Age - the chance of getting breast cancer rises as a woman gets older
Genes - there are two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that greatly increase the risk. Women who have family members with breast or ovarian cancer may wish to be tested.
Personal factors - beginning periods before age 12 or going through menopause after age 55

Other risks include being overweight, using hormone replacement therapy, taking birth control pills, drinking alcohol, not having children or having your first child after age 35 or having dense breasts.

Symptoms of breast cancer may include a lump in the breast, a change in size or shape of the breast or discharge from a nipple. Breast self-exam and mammography can help find breast cancer early when it is most treatable. Treatment may consist of radiation, lumpectomy, mastectomy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.

Men can have breast cancer, too, but the number of cases is small.

  • Breast Diseases:
  • Fibrocystic breast condition - lumpiness, thickening and swelling, often associated with a woman's period
  • Cysts - fluid-filled lumps
  • Fibroadenomas - solid, round, rubbery lumps that move easily when pushed, occurring most in younger women
  • Intraductal papillomas - growths similar to warts near the nipple
  • Blocked or clogged milk ducts
  • Milk production when a woman is not breastfeeding
  • Injury
  • Breast Feeding

Breast feeding offers many benefits to your baby. Breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients to help your infant grow into a strong and healthy toddler. Some of the nutrients in breast milk also help protect your infant against some common childhood illnesses and infections. It may also help your health. Certain types of cancer may occur less often in mothers who have breastfed their babies.

Women who don't have health problems should try to give their babies breast milk for at least the first six months of life. There are some cases when it's better not to breast feed. If you have HIV or active tuberculosis, you should not breast feed because you could give the infection to your baby. Certain medicines, illegal drugs, and alcohol can also pass through the breast milk and cause harm to your baby.

  • Breast Reconstruction

Breast reconstruction is surgery to rebuild a breast's shape after a mastectomy. It cannot give a woman back her breast - a reconstructed breast does not have natural sensations. However, the surgery offers a result that looks like a breast. Most women who had breast reconstruction are glad they did.
 

  • Mammography

A mammogram is a special type of X-ray of the breasts. Mammograms can show tumors long before they are big enough for you or your health care provider to feel. They are recommended for women who have symptoms of breast cancer or who have a high risk of the disease. You and your health care provider should discuss when to start having mammograms and how often to get one.

Mammograms are quick and easy. You stand in front of an X-ray machine. The person who takes the X-rays places your breast between two plastic plates. The plates press your breast and make it flat. This may be uncomfortable, but it helps get a clear picture. You will have an X-ray of each breast. A mammogram takes only a few seconds and it can help save your life.

  • Mastectomy

A mastectomy is surgery to remove a breast. It is performed either to treat or to prevent breast cancer. Only high-risk patients have surgery to prevent cancer. There are four main types:

  • Total mastectomy - removal of breast tissue and nipple
  • Modified radical mastectomy - removal of the breast, most of the lymph nodes under the arm and often the lining over the chest muscles
  • Lumpectomy - surgery to remove the tumor and a small amount of normal tissue around it
  • Radical mastectomy - the removal of the breast, lymph nodes and chest muscles. This is no longer common

Which surgery you have depends on the stage of cancer, size of the tumor, size of the breast and whether the lymph nodes are involved. Many women have breast reconstruction to rebuild the breast after a mastectomy.

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