by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

In case you’ve wondered why pink has become the latest fashion statement for pro footballers this month, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I think you all know about self-exams, medical exams, and mammograms—and to get to a doctor right away if you feel a new lump. (It doesn’t matter if it’s painful or not; get it checked.) And I hope you men know that you can get breast cancer too.

In my mind, prevention and prompt treatment of any medical problem are some of the best preparedness steps you can take. You’ll have one less thing to worry about in case of a disaster. But sometimes things just happen.

You’re not going to be able to do anything about a breast lump you find during a disaster. You’ll just have to wait to get expert medical help. But there’s another symptom you’ll really want to do something about: pain.

Books adBreast pain can get so bad that it becomes debilitating. Fortunately, it usually heralds something less serious than cancer. And there are things you can do about it.

Here are four causes of breast pain that isn’t from an injury. All can happen in men or women. One is life-threatening.

1. Cellulitis

What it feels like: The skin is warm, aching, tender to the touch.

What to look for: Increasing redness, and swelling that can start as an infected hair, pimple, or red spot. Just like any other area of skin, the breast skin can become infected, even abscessed. And, just like any other infection, this one can start from a scratch, a cut, or bacteria getting into a hair follicle.

How to treat: Heat, oral antibiotics. Honey or mupirocin cream (prescription) may help if there’s an open wound. If the infection turns into a boil, see my post on how to lance a boil.

2. Mastitis

What if feels like: A deeper pain and tenderness than the cellulitis.

What to look for: Caused by a clogged or infected milk duct, mastitis is most common in lactating (breast-milk producing) women. But it can occur in anyone, even men (rare). Mastitis can cause breast pain, breast swelling, and fever.

How to treat: If you’re breast-feeding, continue if you can. Drink plenty of fluids. Use moderate heat for about twenty minutes every two hours. Garlic may help. If available, take an antibiotic such as cephalexin or erythromycin for ten to fourteen days.

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Fibrocystic Breasts Vs. Breast Cancer

Both fibrocystic breasts and breast cancer can cause lumps. Self-exams and medical consults will help you know what’s normal for you. Get to know the lumps, how they move, when during the month they change size. Then, if there’s a new one, or noticeable difference in one—firmer, not movable, etc.—get it checked by a doctor.

3. Fibrocystic Breasts.

What it feels like: Different-sized lumps, mostly tiny, usually movable. Breasts can get painful and tender at various times around your menstrual cycle.

What to look for: With fibrocystic breasts, multiple smallish cysts develop in normal breast tissue. (It’s no longer considered a disease.) This happens in about 50 percent of women. It can occur in men too. The cysts vary in size and can become larger or smaller at any time. Fibrocystic breasts can be much more painful for some people than others.

How to treat: Caffeine seems to increase pain, so limit it. In small studies, people have found pain relief by taking 50 mg of vitamin B complex and 200 IU of vitamin E daily. Evening primrose oil—1,000 mg three times a day—is another option.

4. Inflammatory Breast Cancer

What to look for: Instead of a distinct lump, this rare breast cancer causes reddened, swollen skin sometimes described as peau d’orange (French for skin of an orange) because it has the look and feel of a navel orange. The breast often aches. Both men and women can get this cancer.

How to treat: You must get to a doctor quickly. You don’t need to battle a storm and endanger yourself to get to the emergency room on the night you notice symptoms, but you do need to get seen as soon as possible (days, not weeks.) This type of cancer spreads rapidly. Fortunately its signs and symptoms show up in the early stages. Take heed and don’t delay.


What about you? Have you had experience with breast pain? What was your diagnosis? What treatments have you tried?

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