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Understanding fibrocystic breast disease

Because breast cancer is diagnosed in more than 178,000 women each year, most women find the thought of discovering a breast lump frightening. But usually, breast lumps turn out to be benign. Fibrocystic changes are the most common cause of breast lumps in premenopausal women.

For the most part, fibrocystic changes do not increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Fibrocystic disease is not truly a disease, in spite of its name. But even that may change: Because benign changes occur frequently, many breast specialists refer to this group of changes as fibrocystic breast condition.


You can recognize the condition by its classic symptoms: lumps, cysts, tenderness, pain and areas of increased thickness. As the term suggests, the main features of fibrocystic changes are fibrosis—the formation of fibrous tissue—and cysts. These changes make the breasts feel rubbery and firm. Your breast tissue may feel thicker in some areas, or you may feel tiny beads throughout the breast. Generally, these changes are found in both breasts and may cause tenderness or pain.

Some women with fibrocystic condition develop cysts, fluid-filled sacs resulting from an accumulation of fluid inside the breast glands. Cysts are usually round, movable and tender. Doctors may aspirate the cysts, or remove the inner fluid, in order to diagnose the problem and relieve the pain and pressure.

The cause

The tissue in your breast responds to the changes in hormone levels that accompany the menstrual cycle. As your breast retains water, it swells and becomes tender before again returning to normal. After repeating this hormonal cycle many times, your breast tissue may become more firm. Cysts develop when the ducts become obstructed, or blocked, and the liquid can’t drain from the breast.


Most cases of fibrocystic condition can be managed easily with mild pain relievers, ice packs or warm compresses. You may find that reducing the amount of fluid your body retains before each menstrual cycle or reducing caffeine intake can also ease discomfort. If the lumps are large or troublesome, or if you have a known risk of breast cancer, biopsy surgery to remove the lumps may be required.

Be aware

Although fibrocystic disease does not normally indicate breast cancer, women with the condition must continue to perform monthly self-exams and have clinical breast exams and mammograms annually as recommended. Understanding the normal condition of your breasts is essential in identifying any potentially dangerous changes.