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Breast Screening

Benign breast problems

Many women find at some time in their lives that their breasts give them cause for concern. Breasts may become tender, painful, or have an obvious change such as a lump or a discharging nipple. Most breast problems are not caused by cancer.

Benign (harmless) breast problems are very common. Most women notice cyclical changes in their breast tissue and seek help only if that normal pattern changes. Here women discuss their experiences of common breast problems, most of which occurred before they were old enough to be invited for regular screening.

Breast pain is experienced by two out of three women. Some of the women we spoke with said they'd had breast pain at some time in their lives. One said she sometimes had breast pain when she was tired. Another, who'd had some ongoing breast pain, was referred by her GP to hospital, where a consultant examined her. She was told the pain was harmless and it went away by itself.

 

she was referred to hospital because of ongoing breast pain, which went away by itself.

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she was referred to hospital because of ongoing breast pain, which went away by itself.

Age at interview: 75
Sex: Female
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You mentioned that at one stage you did have breast pain? 

Yes. 

When was this?

Well it must have been oh quite a long time ago, probably fifteen/twenty years ago. And I went to the clinic at the Hospital and I was examined there, I think I went quite a few times. I don't know, nobody seemed to know what it was. I think it's one of these mysterious things that occurs from time to time. I mean it could be anything, it could be stress or rheumatism or muscular, I don't know. They didn't know really. I don't think I had any treatment at all, they just sort of felt my breasts and said that there was nothing to worry about and I suppose perhaps then, then it went, [laughs], to be reassured is very important indeed. 

Breast lumps are also common, and the type of lump varies with age. In younger women, the most common type of breast lump is a fibroadenoma. A fibroadenoma is a single lump of fibrous breast tissue usually found in women aged under 35. It can be quite large and feels firm yet mobile. Although benign, it may have to be removed surgically. Several women we spoke with had had a fibroadenoma in the past, and many could not remember much about it. One said she'd had several benign lumps at a younger age, some of which had been fibroadenomas.

 

she had several benign lumps in the past, some of which were fibroadenomas.

she had several benign lumps in the past, some of which were fibroadenomas.

Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
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Well my first problem with my breast came a very long time ago, when I was studying for my A levels, and I discovered a lump in the breast, which was removed just before I went up to university. 

You told me right at the beginning that you were only eighteen or nineteen when you had your first lump. You had that removed in hospital? 

Yes. 

And that was benign. Did they say what it was?

I'm not entirely sure. I think they said fibroadenoma, but I was fairly young, I was not medically informed, and unfortunately my medical records from those days have been destroyed because I was out of the country for more than three years. And you know, you do run the risk of this happening, although I had told them I was going and told them I was coming back. When I came back I had no NHS records, so we do not have a record of what it was. Whether I'd formed the idea that it was a fibroadenoma because of subsequent diagnoses or whether I actually heard that word then, I can't really be certain I'm afraid.

So subsequent lumps were fibroadenomas?  

Yes, except the one in the milk duct. That was described as a polyp. 

And that was removed surgically?  

Yes, oh yes. Yes, they were all surgically removed.

Some women had had breast lumps at a younger age that they didn't know the names of, only that they were benign. One of these women said that finding a lump frightened her but her GP dismissed it. She was afraid to do anything about it for a year until a friend persuaded her to go to hospital. A new GP referred her to hospital, where the lump was removed and found to be benign. Like many other women, she found waiting for results extremely worrying. Several women had had breast lumps removed and regular mammograms afterwards to make sure there were no further problems. One woman said a breast lump she found when she was in her twenties turned out to be an in-growing follicle and totally harmless.

 

Her GP dismissed her lump as harmless but she was worried and a friend eventually persuaded her...

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Her GP dismissed her lump as harmless but she was worried and a friend eventually persuaded her...

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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In 78, 79, I went to my GP because I had a lump. He said it was nothing to worry about but I did worry about it. Then I got to the point where I actually was too frightened to do anything else about it. I was getting in such a state that a friend of mine picked me up from work one lunch time and took me straight up to emergency in the local hospital. They sat me in front of the mirror and said "Look your left breast is much bigger than the right breast, you can see that there's something wrong." And so I changed my doctor immediately to another GP who had me in hospital within a week and I had the lump out. 

How old were you at that point?

Twenty eight.  think it was sore actually, I can't remember how I found it but I think I must've found it in the shower. At certain times of the month we all get a bit lumpy there but it didn't go away, it stayed. I went to see the doctor and when he said it was nothing to worry about. 

Did you talk to anyone at this stage?

I eventually spoke to a friend of mine who could see that I was anxious about something and she's the one who physically came and got me from work and took me to the hospital. 

So from the time that you found the lump and you went to the doctor was that...?

A year. 

Right.  You found the lump and you went to the first doctor? 

Between the first doctor and actually going to the hospital 

Yes 

A year. 

 

Found being recalled and waiting for her test results extremely worrying as she felt something...

Found being recalled and waiting for her test results extremely worrying as she felt something...

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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I think the worst thing was actually leaving hospital and knowing I had to wait a couple of weeks for the results. It's that waiting time that is the problem. And also when they send you the letter telling you about the results, and we know this from the media as well, is they say "sometimes we make mistakes." But I still remember coming round being very frightened and waiting to hear the news. I know I didn't hear straight away, I think I waited a day or so to hear'

That it wasn't cancer?

Well no I still didn't know then but the specialist gave me his view that he thought it was alright. I think I waited another two weeks actually before I had the results of the biopsy.

 

She had a breast lump removed and then regular mammograms to make sure there were no further...

She had a breast lump removed and then regular mammograms to make sure there were no further...

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
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I think it was 1977 when I first discovered that I had a small lump in my breast. And I went to the doctors. I was referred to the hospital and then I went in and had the lump removed. But there was, it was perfectly normal, there was no problem at all. But this put me on a programme of going once a year to the consultant and every other year I had a mammogram. 

Ok, can we just go right back to the beginning? 

Yes 

You said you had a small lump? 

Yes 

Had you ever had anything like that before? 

Not as far as I know. I mean, in my right breast I have a lump, a moveable lump, a little breast mouse thing, which has been there forever. And it was that that took me to the doctor's in the first place. And then after that they checked me out and decided it was in the other breast. I think, I can't remember, did I have, I can't remember whether I had ultrasound, I can't remember whether it was that sophisticated back in 1977, but'

How old were you then? 

1977, I was 33. 

 

A lump she found turned out to be a harmless in-growing follicle.

A lump she found turned out to be a harmless in-growing follicle.

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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I suppose going all the way back, when I was about twenty six I did actually find a small lump under my left breast. And that was actually diagnosed as an in-growing hair follicle eventually and I had it removed under local anaesthetic. No problems. 

As I say when I was twenty six, twenty seven I had this problem with this little in-growing hair follicle under my boob and I did action that straight away. I'd discovered a little, it's like a little spot and then gradually as my bras were rubbing on it, it was becoming sore. So it was only a matter of weeks and I went to the Doctor and that happened fairly quickly as well. So I'm not the type to ignore symptoms and yet I know a lot of people do do and have done. And you know, the longer you leave it the worse the prognosis. So I've never been one to actually ignore things.

In women approaching the menopause, the most common breast lump is a fluid-filled sac called a cyst. Cysts may feel soft or firm and can sometimes be quite painful. Women are usually checked by a consultant who 'aspirates' or draws off the fluid using a syringe with a very fine needle. The fluid is usually only sent to a laboratory for testing if the fluid is blood-stained. Cysts do return but can always be treated in the same way. Some women we spoke with discussed having cysts. 

 

After a routine mammogram, Patricia was referred to a breast clinic because a cyst was found. It...

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After a routine mammogram, Patricia was referred to a breast clinic because a cyst was found. It...

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
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I thought it was only about six years ago, but I have now found it was at least ten years ago, that they found, as they said at the beginning, a lump in my breast. I immediately went to see a private breast consultant, who fortunately said that it was a cyst that had dispersed into two and it was draining away. I have, since then, had no problems whatsoever. I do go to the breast screening when I am called every three years and I must say that I am grateful for the service.

I just went regularly and got the letter saying it is okay, each time. Which you hold your breath when you are opening it. I should imagine every woman does and it was up until, I thought it was only about six years ago, but on reflection it must be ten years ago. I came back from holiday and my daughter had said that the doctor had been trying to get hold of me ex amount of times. I rang the doctor immediately and went to see her. She then said to me, 'They have found something in your breast.' And she asked me about had I got private insurance. I said I had got part cover and within a day or two I had seen a breast consultant at the [local private] Hospital I believe, and then later that week, a few days later, I had a latish appointment at the [city hospital]. I can't remember the doctor's name, but he explained that it was a cyst, that it had broken into two. He was going to drain it, but he felt that there was no need to do that. And from then on I haven't had a problem. I have been once before this time and it came back fine. And I am waiting for the results of the mammogram that I had a couple of weeks ago. 
 

 

Miriam says if she hadn't gone for a routine mammogram, she wouldn't have known she had a cyst....

Miriam says if she hadn't gone for a routine mammogram, she wouldn't have known she had a cyst....

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
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I received a letter from my doctor, but when I went everything was fine and then later on I felt something there, but apparently I have been told it was a cyst that I had there. Now, if I'd never have went and found out, would I have known? You see? But I wasn't frightened, I had my faith to believe in, I go there, better to find out than leave it till late.

So you went for a mammogram and they found something?

Yeah, yeah.

And they called you back?

They told me to go back to [hospital name], I had to go there and have an injection, you know, where they pull out the stuff and that, and they told me it was a cyst and since that I have little cysts I know, but they still tell me to check.

In terms of breast screening, when you went that time, you went for a screening did you get a letter saying, 'Can you come back, we've found something'?

Yes, yes, the one at [hospital name], I had to go there, and I think it was every three years I think this was, this was then, this was before this one and I had to go down and I had to do a wasaname, and they just wanted to make sure whether they were cysts or not but you see I wasn't frightened of going.

Because some women do worry during that time?

Yeah. See but I wasn't frightened of going and my daughter come with me and, you know, it's, my faith, what I believe in that made me go to them things. I'd rather find out rather find out too late.

So when you were recalled, you went with your daughter?

I went with my daughter.

 

She had a cyst which was aspirated and didn't return.

She had a cyst which was aspirated and didn't return.

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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I had a cyst, I found a lump, there again it was the left breast, and I found a lump, this would have been about 1991/92. And I was in bed there again, I was in bed one night and I found this lump. And I remember looking at my husband and he was sound asleep, and I thought, oh my God, breast cancer, I've got breast cancer and I had myself dead and buried in a couple of months because of that. The age, I didn't know a lot about breast cancer, and thought it's, it'll never happen to me. I went to the doctor the next day, who, it was quite painful, the lump was quite painful, and she assured me that it, most likely, it would be a benign cyst, so I was referred to just our local hospital. And they did a biopsy, yes, and it was just a cyst. But the doctor, the hospital doctor told me that usually if it's cancerous the lump, it's usually a hard lump, like a pea, and there's no feeling in it. So she said that, "It's a good thing at least yours is painful, and if it's painful it's more likely to be a cyst." So that was fine, so for all those years afterwards. I just didn't give it another thought.

Did that feel soft that lump or..? 

The lump I found, cancerous or the cyst? 

The cyst.  

Yes, it did, it did, aha, as I say it was quite tender and painful. But once I'd had that removed, it was just a needle they did, to remove it with. I was fine and I say I didn't think about breast cancer an awful lot. 

So, was it just like a syringe to take the lump out?

Like a syringe, yes. Try and think of the word for it, aspirated, that's it yes, yes, they aspirated it aha. And I had a follow-up mammogram, and that was it, I didn't have anything else until I became....

One woman had found a lump which turned out to be a cyst. It was aspirated, and then returned a few times, and was aspirated again. Another woman had a cyst which got inflamed. She received antibiotics on several occasions and it was eventually removed surgically. One woman discussed her anxiety when she found a breast lump because she thought it could be cancerous. It turned out to be a cyst and was removed surgically. A few women had had breast lumps that went away on their own.

 

A lump turned out to be a cyst and was aspirated several times.

A lump turned out to be a cyst and was aspirated several times.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
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And then all of a sudden was that lump. The lump turned out to be a cyst and that involved another mammogram, which I had done privately, which wasn't painful at all. And they just, they put a needle in and aspirated the cyst so that got rid of that. And that kept recurring, it came back 2 or 3 times and they kept having to aspirate it. 

It was just a lump and I noticed it and I thought, 'oh', so I phoned my doctor, got an appointment fairly quickly. And I think I got the appointment within 2 days and by the second day, the day I saw her, it was fairly obvious to me, from all the stuff I'd learned, I thought it's got to be a cyst because nothing is going to grow that quickly. Because in those 2 days it was, I don't know, I mean it sort of felt like it was about 1 1/2 - 2 inches across. 

And how did it feel when you touched it? 

It was becoming very painful, simply because in a confined space there is nowhere for it to go. But oddly enough, I felt terribly calm about it because I felt I'd learned all I could learn and that 99% of all lumps are absolutely nothing. And this had all the typical symptoms of a cyst, as defined by umpteen Internet sites. And by the time, my doctor hand wrote a letter, I went straight to a surgeon 3 days later by which time I didn't have to show him where the lump was because it was bulging out against my bra. And he said "ah," he said, "well you will have to have another mammogram just to be sure" but he said "I'm certain it's a cyst." Now that mammogram did not hurt in any way whatsoever, very slightly uncomfortable but absolutely no pain at all. 

Where did you have that one?   

At the [private hospital]. So that was, again, very strange, yes. And then that lump was aspirated, that was done with a needle. I wanted an anaesthetic and the surgeon roared with laughter and he said to me "by the time I give you an anaesthetic, I'll have done this and the anaesthetic will hurt more than taking the fluid out." And as he said that, he did it and it was done. And I could see it happening, he had, he had it on an ultra-sound screen and he had the ultra-sound thing and I could see this lump shrivelling up. It was quite amazing. 

 

She was repeatedly given antibiotics for an inflamed cyst before eventually having it removed...

She was repeatedly given antibiotics for an inflamed cyst before eventually having it removed...

Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
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Oh it's a few years ago now, I went in the bath and I thought oh God I've got this lump, and it was just white, it was, you didn't have to feel it, you could just see it and it weren't there before, you know it just seemed to come. So I rang the doctors up the next day, got me in at night time, tea time and I went and he says "Don't worry it's just a cyst," he said "If it was gristly or something," if he felt it, it was soft it was one thing, it was hard it was something else you know. So he says "Don't worry about it."  

Anyway two years after that it come back again, just red, so I went back again. Gave me some antibiotics, went again. Then I went again and it looked worse and so he says to me "I'll have to give you antibiotics again," and he says "Bath it in salt water." Well I couldn't do it and he says "and try and keep squeezing it to try and get this pus out of it." So a woman round the corner says to me [laughs] "Come round here every night and I'll do it for you, you see," so I was round there, well it was awful. I was going, still going to work but I'd got this pad on you know and it was, it went black and blue.

And I thought, and it come all big so I had to go back again once I'd took these antibiotics, then I went back again, and then I went back again. And he said "This is all I can give you now," he says "but I can't send you anywhere as it is now because nobody will even look at it." So anyway when this last lot of antibiotics I took it, went down, so then he sent me then to the hospital and they decided then that I ought to have it out because they said "Each time it comes angry," they kept saying "it will come worse." You see so I thought well I thought that were bad enough. Because even say to bend down like that, I was having to go like this you see because it was just hurting me so much. 

So anyway I went and had it out in the end, only under a what is it a local thing isn't it, you know, so I had it out and I never had any trouble after that, it just stayed as it was.

 

She felt anxious when she found a lump because she thought it was cancerous.

She felt anxious when she found a lump because she thought it was cancerous.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
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Well a lump, you can't really miss I don't think, it poked out at me, just, I wasn't even looking for it, I never checked myself and the minute I found it I thought 'I have cancer' which I suppose everybody does. So obviously I went, I got an appointment and I was sent to the [hospital] up in London and they did a mammogram of course and they made, they went in with an injection and pulled out some cells.  

But I couldn't miss it, it pointed out at me and I just immediately thought oh I must have cancer, you always think the worst don't you. People said things like "oh if you can move it then it's a cyst and da, da, da".  Everyone said different things but in your head you think right I've got cancer. I'm not really a pessimist but then I was, but luckily enough it wasn't. 

At that time you thought it might be cancer. How did you feel before you went into the screening unit?

Very nervous, very nervous, well it changes your life, you think the results when I come out of here can change my life and obviously it wasn't an immediate thing, I had to go back a few times, they were kind of monitoring me, scanning it, mammogram, they were doing various things, x-raying it and I think they obviously weren't sure.

Nipple changes can manifest as a discharge, nipple retraction or skin change. Some women said they'd had nipple changes that turned out to be harmless. One woman, whose mother had died of cancer said a bleeding nipple was examined in case it was something serious. It was found to be harmless and the bleeding stopped of its own accord. Another woman had a benign polyp which caused bleeding from the nipple.

 

A bleeding nipple was examined- no cause was found and the bleeding stopped by itself.

A bleeding nipple was examined- no cause was found and the bleeding stopped by itself.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
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So when I was twenty-two I had trouble with my right breast. And there was a little leakage of blood, and it was checked out at the hospital in Belfast and it was clear. I think they only checked it because of my mother's background. She didn't have breast cancer that I'm aware of, but you're talking fifty odd years ago so she may well have had breast cancer and her abdomen, the cancer in her abdomen may have been secondary, we don't know. 

I was told they didn't think it was anything, but they got me referred to... I was actually working in England at the time. I was coming back home here and they got me referred to a local hospital. There was blood and like fluid coming out of the nipple. Didn't find what was wrong with it. 

What tests did they do? 

Didn't do an awful lot, they just checked it and, I mean, you're talking over thirty years ago. And I don't think they would have except for my mother's history. 

So they just looked at you? 

Yes. 

You didn't have any tests? 

No. 

You went back home. What happened? 

It just, it stopped of its own accord, and it never happened in between again. 

 

Bleeding from a nipple turned out to be from a benign polyp which she had removed.

Bleeding from a nipple turned out to be from a benign polyp which she had removed.

Age at interview: 60
Sex: Female
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Then some, in the late seventies - that would have been 1962 - in the late seventies when I was married and a mother of three - the next one was a bleeding from the nipple, which after various investigations turned out to be a polyp in a milk duct, which again was removed, and was found to be benign, so that was fine. 

One woman who was recalled for further tests after screening had white dots (microcalcifications) on her mammogram, which she was told were harmless. Another, in whom screening identified an early form of breast cancer, had several benign lumps removed at the same time as her cancer. Other benign breast problems include:

  • duct ectasia (ducts under the nipple can become inflamed, cause nipple discharge and sometimes lumps and inverted nipples. It is non-cancerous)
  • periductal mastitis (when the ducts under the nipple become inflamed and infected)
  • fat necrosis (a lump can form if fatty breast tissue is damaged – a bruise or injury to the breast)
  • hyperplasia (sometimes normal cells within the breast grow bigger and increase in number- it doesn't produce any symptoms or cause pain and is non- cancerous).

Although benign breast conditions are more common than breast cancer, breast symptoms can be worrying because women often associate them with cancer. Waiting for test results or analysis of lumps removed surgically can be agonising, and some women said they had little support in this situation. However, one woman said she became blasé because she'd had so many lumps removed that were all benign. Another did not worry about her lump because she knew it was behaving like a benign cyst.

 

She was very scared until she was told her breast lump was benign.

She was very scared until she was told her breast lump was benign.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
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Did you think a lot about it or did you manage to keep your mind focused on other things?

At first I was terrified thinking oh God, you know I'm going to die or you know, worse scenario, I think, I actually think if I'm really honest, you, you think oh God I've got breast cancer, I'm going to die and you have to get your head round that, you think well if I'm going to die, I'm going to die, do you know what I'm saying. So you kind of like you think well I've just got to get on with it, you learn to accept. You live in hope that it's not you that's going to get it but you kind of think well I have to accept it if it is. 

Is there anything you know now that you wished you'd know then when you were going through the anxiety and the worry. What could have made it less for you?

The only thing that could make it less for me was to know that it was benign because I think that the moment you have a lump, until you're told it's not dangerous you'll worry, and I don't care who you are I think you'll worry. Yes benign was the best word I could hear and so until then no you worry. Okay you live with it and you get on with your life but at the back of your mind you think oh God you know. It's there. 

A couple of women who had a breast lump removed were asked to give written consent before their operation to removal of their whole breast if cancer was found during the operation. One refused, but the other agreed and said the first thing she did on waking was to feel for her breast, which was still there.

 
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Last reviewed March 2016.

Last updated March 2016.

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