What Are Fibrocystic Breasts, Exactly?

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful women's health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: why your breasts might be lumpy, especially before your period.

Q: I went to my annual exam earlier this week and during the breast examination my doctor told me I have fibrocystic breast tissue. She said it’s why my breasts feel lumpy, which I totally hadn’t noticed — they feel pretty much the same to me but I guess I’m not feeling them all the time? Anyway, she said it’s not dangerous but that I should keep an eye on it. Which kinda freaked me out because if it’s not dangerous why do I have to pay attention to it? So basically I’m asking: what does this mean for my health? Should I be worried? Can I fix it?

A: Fibrocystic breast changes are totally normal. In fact, over half of humans born with breasts experience this type of breast tissue change sometime during their lives, although it’s most common for those in their 20s to 50s and is rare after menopause. With fibrocystic breast changes, your breasts will feel lumpier, or more like you have a coil of rope in your boobs. This used to be called fibrocystic breast disease, but since it actually isn’t a disease we now just call it what it is — a change. These changes are generally totally benign, but there can be some health challenges associated with them, which is I assume why your doctor told you to keep an eye on how your breast tissue changes moving forward. Here's what you need to know.

What Exactly Are Fibrocystic Breast Changes?

Boobs are complicated. Basically, the inner workings of the breast includes connective tissue, fat, and then lobes, lobules (milk glands), ducts, and lymph nodes (part of your immune system). These elements are undergoing hormonally driven changes all the time; for instance, you may have noticed that your breasts get tender or larger right before your period. This is because each month your breasts are thinking, “Oh sh*t maybe this time you’ll get pregnant and we’ll have to feed a baby in nine-ish months, let’s get ourselves ready for milk production!”. When you don’t get pregnant, your body gets rid of most of the stimulated breast cells by, well, killing them. It’s called apoptosis, and it’s when enzymes are programmed to eat the cells out from the inside, breaking them down so their parts can be reabsorbed into your body for future use. Recycling!

That’s all normal, but how does this breast tissue get fibrocystic? Well, during apoptosis, the fragments of the digested cells can irritate the rest of the breast tissue. This can lead to cysts, which are fluid-filled sacs that feel lumpy to the touch, or scar-like tissue, which is what feels like rope.

How Do I Know I Have Fibrocystic Breasts?

Lots of people have fibrocystic breasts and don’t even know it; they only learn when a professional does a breast exam and points it out to them. But there are some symptoms that can let you know that your breasts might have undergone this change. These include if your breasts are painful or tender to the touch (usually around the top or side of the breast), if you notice lumps that change in size throughout your menstrual cycle, or if you are experiencing discharge from your nipples that is dark brown or green in color. Overall, these symptoms tend to be the most uncomfortable right before you start your period and usually get better once your flow has begun. So if this sounds like you, you might want to talk to your doctor about it to make sure.

Is It Dangerous?

The great news is that having fibrocystic breast changes is not indicative of anything scary. It’s just a normal change. Specifically, having this type of breast tissue doesn’t increase your risk of breast cancer. However, it can make it harder to see cancerous lumps through our current screening tools, so if you know you have fibrocystic breast tissue and you’re going in for a cancer screening, definitely tell your doctor. It’s also a good idea to visit your doctor if you find a new lump or ropey area or these areas get larger or more pronounced, your pain is continuous or gets worse over time, or your tissue changes are still there after your period is over.

You can also check out Bustle's guide to feeling your breasts for lumps, but in short, an abnormal lump will feel hard to the touch, may be accompanied by other breast changes, and usually won't occur in both breasts simultaneously (unlike fibrocystic breast changes).

Can I Get Rid Of It?

If you learn you have fibrocystic breast tissue but you’re not experiencing annoying discomfort or pain, then you don’t need to treat anything. Chances are any symptoms you have will go away after your period, but if you do have lots of breast pain or you notice large cysts, you might want to get care.

Talk to your doctor. If you have a cyst, she might drain it with a very thin needle; if that doesn’t work, she might take out the lump surgically, but that’s pretty rare. As for breast pain, she may give you some over-the-counter pain relievers. She may also prescribe oral birth control pills, since they have been shown to control the hormonal shifts that most likely cause these breast tissue changes. There are also some vitamins and supplements that can help; for instance, evening primrose oil and vitamin E can help with breast pain. Wearing a supportive bra or putting heat on your breasts can also make your breasts feel better. Finally, there hasn’t been enough research to support this, but many people say that cutting out caffeine, chocolate, sugar, and other stimulants is helpful.

The Bottom Line

Fibrocystic breast changes are a totally normal part of living with breasts. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, realistically there’s a good chance it will in your future. If or when it does, there’s nothing to worry about. Pay attention to it and know how to tell the difference between fibrocystic breast lumps and potentially cancerous lumps, but definitely don’t freak out. Sometimes, lumpy boobs are just part of living life with breasts!

Images: Bustle; Giphy