Breast nodules are lumps or swelling in the breasts. Both men and women at any age can have a breast nodule. Most individuals associate nodules with breast cancer, but there are many possible causes. It is important to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy breast tissue. Information from the Mayo Clinic points out that normal breast tissue often has a nodular feel in the outer area of the breast. Also, aging and menstruation can change the feel of the breasts, but that is not necessarily an indication of underlying pathology.
Fibrocystic changes in the breast create many nodules--more than normal--in the breast tissue. These changes may be painful for some women, especially just before a menstrual period. The condition itself is not dangerous, nor does it increase the risk of developing breast cancer. The greater amount of nodules, however, may make it difficult to distinguish cancerous tissue. According to information from the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, fibrocystic changes typically occur in women in their 30s and 40s.
Fibroadenomas are nodules that tend to occur around the same age as fibrocystic changes. These nodules feel “rubbery” under the skin, according to the description from the National Library of Medicine. They are also freely movable. In contrast to fibrocystic changes, fibroadenomas may become cancerous but only in very rare instances. Often a biopsy--removal of cells from the area of concern for study in a medical lab--is necessary to determine whether the nodule is cancerous.
Cysts are smaller nodules that may become tender before a menstrual period. The nodules, or sacs, are filled with fluid that usually must be drained and examined by a physician. The National Library of Medicine explains that clear or green liquid indicates that a cyst is not cancerous. Also, if draining the liquid causes the cyst to go away, then no additional treatment is needed. Bloody fluid, however, may contain cancer cells. It is typically sent to a lab for further analysis. Persistent cysts may need to be surgically removed.
If a nodule feels markedly different from surrounding tissue, it may indicate the presence of breast cancer. Other signs include a change in the size and feel of the nodule and if it remains even after the menstrual period has ended. Any change to the nipple, such as discharge or turning inward if it doesn’t normally, are cause for concern. The Mayo Clinic also notes that changes to the surface of the skin around the breast such as redness or dimpling could be due to breast cancer. Speak with a physician if any of these symptoms occur.
Based in New York City, Amber Angelle has been a science writer since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "Popular Mechanics," "Discover" and "Popular Science." Angelle also contributed to the textbook "Psychology Around Us" and to the encyclopedia series Salem Health: Cancer. She holds a Master of Science in pharmacology from Tulane University School of Medicine.