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Overview of Breast Disorders


Lydia Choi

, MD, Karmanos Cancer Center

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2024
Topic Resources

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 Breast Cancer Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast become abnormal and divide into more cells uncontrollably. Breast cancer usually starts in the glands that produce milk (lobules) or the tubes ... read more Breast Cancer needs to be treated and may involve surgery or other intensive cancer treatments. Potential problems can often be detected early by the following:

  • Regular breast examinations with a health care professional

  • Mammograms as recommended

Early detection of breast cancer can be essential to successful treatment.

Women should be familiar with how their breasts and nipples normally look and feel. If a woman notices a change, she may want to do a breast self-examination. Women should report any changes to a health care professional right away. Most medical organizations no longer recommend monthly or weekly breast self-examinations Breast self-awareness Breast cancer rarely causes symptoms in its early stages, and early treatment is more likely to be successful; thus, screening is important. Screening is the hunt for a disorder before any symptoms... read more Breast self-awareness as a routine way to check for cancer. Doing these examinations when there is no lump or other change does not help detect breast cancer early in women who get regular screening mammograms.

Rarely men develop breast cancer, and they should also be aware of changes in or around their nipples.

The Breasts

Symptoms of Breast Disorders

Symptoms related to the breast are common, leading to millions of visits to the doctor each year. These symptoms include

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.

Inside the Breast

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 see their doctor if they observe any change in a breast, particularly any of the following:

  • A lump or thickened area 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 being pulled 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)


Evaluation of Breast Disorders

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

  • What the symptoms are

  • How long she has had the symptoms

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

  • Whether she has a discharge from the nipple, and if so, what it looks like and whether it was from one breast or both

  • Whether she is pregnant

  • What medications she is taking

  • Whether she or a family member has had breast cancer

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

Breast examination

A breast examination is done. With a woman sitting or lying down, the doctor inspects each breast 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 doctor applies pressure around the nipples to check for a discharge. The discharge is examined to determine whether it contains blood. The armpits are checked for enlarged lymph nodes.

The doctor may examine the breast and armpits with a 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.


Imaging tests are used to

Mammography involves taking x-rays of both breasts to check for abnormalities. A low dose of radiation is used. Only about 10 to 15% of abnormalities detected by mammography result from cancer.

Experts agree that all women should be screened for breast cancer. However, experts disagree about

  • When it should start

  • How often it should be done

  • When (or if) it should be stopped

Screening may include

  • Mammography

  • A breast examination by a health care professional

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for high-risk patients

Screening mammography Mammography Breast cancer rarely causes symptoms in its early stages, and early treatment is more likely to be successful; thus, screening is important. Screening is the hunt for a disorder before any symptoms... read more Mammography is usually started between the ages of 40 and 50 (see sidebar ). Mammography is then done every 1 or 2 years. Experts have different recommendations about when to start routine mammography. Some experts recommend starting at age 50 because screening mammography is more accurate in women over age 50. Routine mammography may be stopped at age 75, depending on a woman's life expectancy and her wish for continued screening.

The types of tissue in the breast affect how well a mammogram can detect an abnormality. The breast contains fibroglandular tissue (composed of fibrous tissue and glands) and fatty tissue. As women age, the amount of fatty tissue in the breasts increases and the amount of fibroglandular tissue decreases. Abnormalities next to fatty tissue are easier to detect with a mammogram. That is why a mammogram becomes more accurate after age 50.

Some women have dense breasts. Having dense breasts means that women have more fibroglandular tissue and less fatty tissue. Abnormalities in dense breasts are harder to detect on a mammogram . Also, women with dense breasts have an increased risk of breast cancer. Thus, these women may require additional tests, such as breast ultrasonography, 3-dimensional mammography (tomosynthesis Mammography Mammography ), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Mammography can be used to do the following:

  • Provide images of any abnormalities (such as a tumor or an abscess) and the tissues around the abnormality

  • Provide images of lymph nodes to check for abnormalities

  • Help doctors place a biopsy needle into abnormal tissue

  • After surgery, help doctors determine whether all the cancer was removed

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.

Ultrasonography can be used to do the following:

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to do the following:

  • Evaluate abnormal findings on breast examination or other imaging studies

  • After breast cancer is diagnosed, determine the size and number of the tumors, especially in women with dense breast tissue

  • Identify abnormal lymph nodes and thus help stage breast cancer

This information can help doctors plan surgery or other treatments for breast cancer.

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