Summer 2004
When You find a Breast Lump, It's Probably Not Cancer - But You Need To Know for Sure

You're being a responsible woman, doing your monthly breast self-exam, as you've been doing for years. Only this time--you find something. It's small, but it's there. So you call your gynecologist, who quickly schedules you for a diagnostic exam.

OK, now you're worried. So here's some information to help you through the coming days. About 80% of breast lumps are not cancer. Instead, they are benign (non-cancerous) lumps.

"If you find a lump, you need to have it checked immediately," says Kathy Casale, RN, executive director of the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center at Bridgeport Hospital. "If it is cancer, early detection is key to effective treatment. If it isn't, a quick diagnosis will calm your fears. The goal in the coming days will be to determine what type of lump yours is," she adds. "This may involve a team of physicians that includes your gynecologist and primary care physician, a radiologist to analyze images, a pathologist to analyze body cells, and a surgeon."

There are several ways for physicians to analyze a breast lump:

palpation (physical examination to feel the lump)
mammogram (X-ray image)
ultrasound (use of sound waves to create a computer image)
needle aspiration (withdrawing some or all of the fluid in the lump through a needle)
biopsy (removal of a few cells from the lump for laboratory analysis)

It is a Cyst or a Fibrocystic Lump?

"Many breast lumps turn out to be simple fluid-filled sacs called cysts," says Mary Pronovost, MD, medical director of the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center at Bridgeport Hospital. "These can sometimes be seen by mammogram, but they are best evaluated by ultrasound. Then, withdrawing and examining fluid from the lump may tell your physician if the cyst is non-cancerous-as most are. If no immediate diagnosis can be made, a biopsy may be needed to find out if cancer is present. The biopsy can usually be done during the same visit."

Other lumps are fibrocystic-that is, they are thickened areas of the breast glands and supporting fiber-like tissue. Your breast cells multiply during your monthly cycle, and break down at the end of the cycle. Fibrocystic lumps are caused by the swelling and scarring that can occur during this normal process. In truth, they are more fiber than cyst, with little or no fluid. If mammogram results suggest a fibrocystic lump, observation is often in order.

Many women have what is called fibrocystic condition. This means that they are prone to getting these lumps. Fibrocystic lumps can make it harder for your physician to detect other, cancerous lumps. So women with fibrocystic condition, even when their lumps have proven benign, should ask their physicians if it would be wise to have mammograms and physical breast exams more often than once a year.

By doing your monthly breast self-exam, you caught your lump while it was still small. Whether it is cancer or not, you can be glad it was found early, giving you the best chance for successful treatment.

The Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center at Bridgeport Hospital coordinates the rapid diagnosis and treatment of breast conditions and also offers complementary therapies, education, and support groups.

For an appointment for your annual screening mammogram, or for a FREE breast self-exam card for your shower, please call 203-384-3392. Out-of-area, call 1-877-HOPE (4673).

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