Whether it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month or not, there's almost no end in sight to all the info about early detection and prevention of the disease. It's absolutely astounding and so heartening to see that we seem to be getting more and more well-versed about how we can guard ourselves against breast cancer. And yet, at the same time, we can't forget that there are many breast health issues women experience all the time that actually have nothing to do with cancer.
Board-certified gynecologist and regular women's health expert for The Dr. Oz Show Dr. Jennifer Ashton touched on some of the most common, non-cancerous concerns your breasts might be trying to clue you in on.
1. Breast pain, or mastalgia, often seems like cause for concern. In fact, this is "by far" most common complaint Dr. Ashton says she sees. "This typically occurs in the two weeks before a period, and usually involves the outer and/or lower half of the breasts, and affects both sides," she explains. Also worth noting: Experts say the interplay of caffeine, stress hormones, and reproductive hormones may play a role in premenstrual breast swelling and discomfort.
How to tell it's not cancer: The pain comes and goes randomly and affects women of all ages. But pain that persists or is associated with any lumps should be evaluated by a physician.
The Rx: "It can be treated with ibuprofen and some women find that sleeping in a looser jog bra or tank top offers some relief," Dr. Ashton recommends.
2. A benign breast cyst may mimic a lump. Also known as fibroadenomas, these cysts can sometimes grow to large sizes and need to be surgically removed, Dr. Ashton notes.
How to tell it's not cancer: "Benign cysts have a very smooth and regular appearance to them when they are studied with an ultrasound," Dr. Ashton explains. "If there is any doubt, the radiologist will usually insert a needle to drain the cyst content to be more sure."
The Rx: "For the majority of cysts, doing something called 'expectant management' is usually the best home remedy," says Ashton. "This involves letting a period of time pass in between being evaluated by a doctor -- usually with a breast ultrasound."
3. Breast rashes can seem worrisome, especially because itchy skin on the breast may signal an inflammatory form of breast cancer called Paget's disease.
How to tell it's not cancer: Paget's disease will affect one breast, while benign skin rashes (like eczema) usually affect both, explains Dr. Ashton.
The Rx: As Dr. Ashton tells her patients, "Nothing really bad or serious stays the same or gets better on its own," so if after two weeks, the rash is getting worse, not better, checking in with your doctor is always a good idea.
More from The Stir: 10 Secrets to a More Bearable Mammogram
4. Strange discharge, particularly that's thick, sticky, and gray to green in color.
How to tell it's not cancer: See your doctor, who may be able to tell you if you're dealing with mammary duct ecstasia. (Our risk of this goes up with age -- yippee!) Mammary duct ecstasia occurs when a milk duct beneath your nipple becomes wider (dilated), the duct walls thicken, and the duct fills with fluid. The milk duct can then become blocked or clogged with a thick, sticky substance. An ultrasound and mammography can confirm the diagnosis.
The Rx: According to Mayo Clinic, mammary duct ectasia often improves without treatment. If your symptoms are bothersome, you may be put on antibiotics for 10-14 days or, if worst comes to worst, the affected duct can be surgically removed.
5. A wonky mammogram result that requires a redo might cause you to freak out, but it might just be due to your age or dense breasts.
How to tell it's not cancer/the Rx: Dr. Ashton recommends that women under the age of 50 always ask their doctor about getting a breast ultrasound in addition to a mammogram. "Ultrasounds are very important for younger women and/or women with dense breasts and can help find cancer that even a mammogram can miss," she says. "Ultrasounds are painless, quick, inexpensive, and use no radiation. It's not the standard of care, so you definitely need to ask your doctor about having one."
6. Bleeding from the nipple.
How to tell it's not cancer: Obviously, this is a scary one, so you'll likely wanna see your doc, but this can be caused by an intraductal papilloma -- a small, wart-like growth near the nipple that may cause bleeding. It's most likely to occur in women in their 40s. Ultrasound, a biopsy, or even x-ray may be helpful.
The Rx: The involved duct is removed with surgery, and the cells are checked for cancer.
7. A warm, tender, lumpy, red breast.
How to tell it's not cancer: As long as you're breastfeeding, it's very likely that you may be dealing with mastitis, a breast infection usually caused by a common bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) found on normal skin. The bacteria enter through a break or crack in the skin, usually on the nipple. An exam can confirm the diagnosis and rule out complications, like an abscess.
The Rx: A doc will usually prescribe antibiotics and recommend self-care, which may include applying moist heat to the infected breast tissue for 15 to 20 minutes four times a day.
Have you ever grappled with a breast health concern that thankfully was not cancer?