Hesperian Health Guides

Problems of the Breasts

In this chapter:

a woman feeling her right breast with her left hand

Breast lumps

It is common to find lumps in the breasts, especially soft, fluid-filled ones (called cysts). These usually change during the menstrual cycle, and sometimes feel sore or painful when pressed. Few breast lumps are cancer. But since breast cancer is always a possibility, try to examine your breasts for lumps once a month.

a woman squeezing the nipple of her breast between the thumb and index finger of her hand

Discharge from the nipple

Milky or clear discharge from one or both nipples can be normal if you have breastfed a baby within the last year. Brown, green, or bloody discharge—especially from only one nipple—could be a sign of cancer. Get checked by a health worker who can examine your breasts.

a woman in pain looking at a dark area near her nipple
More Information
breast infections

Breast infection

If you are breastfeeding a baby and get a hot, red, sore area on the breast, it probably is mastitis, or an abscess. This is not cancer and is easily cured. For someone who is not breastfeeding, it may be a sign of cancer.

Cancer of the breast

Breast cancer usually grows slowly. If it is found early, it can often be cured. As with other cancers, it is hard to tell who will get breast cancer. The risk might be greater if your mother or sisters have had breast cancer or for someone who has had cancer of the womb. Breast cancer is more common after age 50.

a woman with a lump on the side of one breast
Warning signs:
  • a hard painless lump with a jagged shape, that is in only one breast and does not move under the skin
  • redness or a sore on the breast that does not heal
  • skin on the breast that is pulled in, or looks rough and pitted, like orange or lemon peel
  • a nipple that changes and becomes pulled inward
  • abnormal discharge from a nipple
  • a painless swelling under the arm that does not go away after 4 to 6 weeks

For any of these signs, see a trained health worker right away.

Finding and treating breast cancer

If you examine your breasts regularly, you are likely to notice if there are any changes or if a new lump develops. A special x-ray called a mammogram is used to find breast lumps when they are small and less noticeable. If a lump is found with a mammogram, usually more tests will be needed to find out if the lump is dangerous.

The only way to know for sure if someone has breast cancer is with a biopsy. For this, a surgeon removes all or part of the lump with a needle or a knife and has it tested for cancer in a laboratory.

See a health worker right away if you have already had breast cancer and find another lump in the breast or notice other warning signs of breast cancer.

Treatment depends on how advanced the cancer is and what is available where you live. If a lump is small and found early, just removing the lump may be effective. But for some cases of breast cancer, an operation may be needed to remove the whole breast. Sometimes doctors also use chemotherapy medicines and radiation therapy.

No one knows yet how to prevent breast cancer. But we do know that finding and treating breast cancer early makes a cure more likely. Sometimes after treatment it never comes back. Other times, it returns years later. It may come back in the other breast or, less often, in other parts of the body.

This page was updated:13 Nov 2023