What Is Fibrocystic Breast Disease?
Fibrocystic breast disease (FBD), now referred to as “fibrocystic changes” or “fibrocystic breast condition” (FCC), is a condition (not a disease) characterized by discomfort and lumpy changes in one or both breasts. This lumpiness is due to small breast masses or cysts. FBD/FCC is a very common condition, affecting more than 60% of women. The condition primarily affects women between the ages of 30 and 50, and tends to resolve after menopause. So, we have that to look forward to, right?
What Causes FBD/FCC?
Fibrocystic breast condition involves the glandular tissue of the breasts responsible for producing milk. During a women’s monthly cycle hormonal changes take place that stimulate increased cell growth and cells to multiply. These same hormonal changes are responsible for a woman’s monthly period.
When the monthly cycle is over, however, these stimulated breast cells cannot simply slough away and pass out of the body like the lining of the uterus. Instead, many of these breast cells die. During this process, enzymes are activated that start digesting the cells from within. These cells break down and the resulting cellular fragments are then further broken down by scavenger cells (inflammatory cells) and nearby glandular cells.
The fragments of broken cells and the inflammation may lead to scarring (fibrosis) that damages the ducts and the clusters (lobules) of glandular tissue within the breast. This is what causes the lumpiness and tenderness in the breasts. The degree of lumpiness or tenderness can vary from woman to woman and even from month to month for the same woman, and involving one or both breasts.
What Are The Symptoms Of FBD/FCC?
In some women, the symptoms of FCC can be very mild and limited to occurring just before the monthly period. And, for these women, lumps may not even be detectable with self breast exams. Unfortunately for other women with fibrocystic breasts, the painful breasts and tenderness are constant, and many lumpy or nodular areas can be felt throughout both breasts. That would be me! If this is you, too, you can expect a more elaborate mammogram and probably will include breast ultrasounds, as well.
Since fibrocystic lumps in the breast can closely mimic those found in breast cancer. They can also sometimes make breast cancer difficult to detect. If a woman’s breasts are fibrocystic, other diagnostic tests, such as ultrasound or biopsy, in addition to screening mammography may be necessary in order to rule out an underlying breast cancer.
How Do Symptoms Of FBD/FCC Differ From Breast Cancer
Probably the most notable difference is pain. A common indicator of fibrocystic breast condition is breast pain or discomfort, whereas there is typically no pain associated with breast cancer. The discomfort may include a dull, heavy pain in the breasts, breast tenderness, nipple itching, and/or a feeling of fullness in the breasts. These symptoms may be persistent or come and go, frequently appearing at the onset of each menstrual period and going away immediately afterwards.
There is also a difference in how the benign lumpiness of FBD/FCC feels compared to lumps in the breast that are cancerous. The lumpiness generally can be detected by touching and feeling by your doctor or through self-examination. The lumpiness of FBD/FCC is most commonly found in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, or the area closest to the armpit.
Fibrocystic lumps are typically mobile, that is they are not anchored to overlying or underlying tissue, like most malignant lumps are. They usually feel rounded, have smooth borders, and may feel rubbery or somewhat changeable in shape. Some lumps can feel irregular or like tiny beads, and can vary from woman to woman.
Is There An Increased Risk Of Breast Cancer?
Even though fibrocystic breast condition is benign, it can mean a slight increased risk of breast cancer down the road. This is related to the increased cell growth, or hyperplasia, that occurs during the time right before the monthly period. Hyperplasia is associated with a slightly elevated risk of breast cancer. This is because genetic errors or mutations have begun to accumulate in cells that no longer respond normally to the signals that usually control cell growth and division. These cells may also have an impaired ability to repair any genetic damage. As the atypical or irregular cells increase in number, they accumulate additional genetic errors.
Environmental, dietary, and metabolic toxins may also interact with a woman’s complex hormonal system to increase the risk of mutations and thus increase the risk of breast cancer. The potential for genetic errors or mutations (DNA damage), which can be caused by a variety of damaging agents combined with the stimulation of cell division, is what ultimately leads to the risk of breast cancer that is associated with some cases of fibrocystic breast condition. The ability to recognize and repair DNA damage, a process that cells must continuously perform, varies from person to person.
- Regular breast exams with your doctor
- Follow recommended breast imaging, mammogram and possibly ultrasound protocol prescribed by your doctor. The American Cancer Society recommends all women have a baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 and 40.
- Understand the risks. Only 5% of women with fibrocystic breast condition have the type of cellular changes which represents a risk factor for breast cancer. However, without a breast biopsy, the exact risk is unknown.
What Are Some Of The Treatments For FBD/FCC?
- Proper bra support can help, somewhat, with the pain associated with fibrocystic breast condition. It may be necessary to even wear a light support bra to bed. I like a soft sport bra (see below) for bed time, personally.
- Vitamins C, E, B-6 and A have been reported to relieve symptoms.
- Contraceptives can be beneficial for women with irregular periods; they help to regulate hormone levels. Women who have had a hysterectomy and are on hormone therapy, can benefit from being off estrogen for 5 days during each cycle.
- Caffeine restriction can relieve symptoms almost immediately. Caffeine has been implicated as contributing to both the symptoms and scarring (fibrocystic) changes in fibrocystic breast condition. *Note: I have been caffeine free for a year (except for the occasional piece of dark chocolate), now, and I barely have any signs of fibrocystic breast condition at all!
Chances are you are one of the 60+% of women suffering from fibrocystic breast condition. This article is meant to, not only be informative to the causes, but also to help alleviate any fear you may had about FBD/FCC being associated with breast cancer, since only 5% of women with the condition will develop breast cancer. However, if you do have the condition, be sure to have regular exams and follow doctors orders on how often you should be getting mammograms and/or ultrasound and biopsy. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mamms, after age 40. If you’re going through menopause, or already there, rest assured your symptoms will become less and less. This should be a comfort, since most other conditions seem to get worse or develop after menopause!
I hope you found this article to be helpful. Please leave any comments or questions below.