Certain health conditions display no symptoms, leading to delayed diagnosis and treatment. On the other hand, some diseases show symptoms but are misinterpreted due to their overlapping nature, leading to misdiagnosis and wrong treatment. For instance, breast lumps are indicative of breast cancer as well as breast cysts. But without a thorough medical examination and a specific report, one cannot undergo treatment or take therapeutic measures. So how do we differentiate between the two? The OnlyMyHealth editorial team spoke to Dr Karishma Kirti, Consultant, Surgical Oncology, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai, to get some clarity on the matter.
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What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a type of cancer in which the breast cells grow abnormally, leading to the formation of a tumour. According to a report by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide. In 2020 alone, it accounted for about 2.3 million new cases and about 6.85 lakh deaths.
Common symptoms of breast cancer include:
- Swollen breasts or part of a breast
- Breast or nipple pain
- Skin dimpling
- Nipple discharge
- Inverted nipples
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm and near the collarbone
What Is A Breast Cyst?
Breast cysts are non-cancerous fluid-filled sacs inside the breasts. These occur due to normal hormonal changes. Fluctuations in hormones can take place during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and the post-menopausal stage. Breast cysts are benign and have no life-threatening implications. However, treatment may be required if the cysts become painful and distressing.
- Common symptoms include:
- Breast lump that is smooth and easily movable
- Breast pain and tenderness
- Increase or decrease in breast lump size
- Nipple discharge
Breast Cancer Vs. Breast Cyst
Even though breast cancer and breast cyst share similar symptoms, the two conditions are completely different.
Dr Kirti says, "Breast cancer and breast cysts are two different conditions that can form a breast lump that can be either solid or cystic (fluid-filled), and cancer can present as either of these. However, breast cancer is a hard and irregular solid mass and breast cysts are usually benign and have smoother margins. While solid lesions grow over some time, cysts can appear suddenly, often overnight and can be painful."
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How To Tell If Your Breast Lump Is Cancerous Or A Cyst?
According to the doctor, both breast cancer and breast cyst are found in the form of a lump in the breast. This can be confusing and misleading. Hence, Dr Kirti advises getting the breast lump assessed by a healthcare provider, preferably a surgeon. Here are some techniques the doctor would use to tell the difference between breast cancer and breast cysts:
1. Physical examination
A healthcare provider can perform a physical examination of the breast to check for the presence of lumps. They may use their fingers to feel the size, shape, and texture of the lump. In case of a cyst, the doctor may also use a needle and syringe to remove the fluid to assess the lump.
A mammogram refers to an X-ray of the breast tissue that can detect any abnormalities. Ultrasound makes use of sound waves to create images of the breast tissue, which can help identify the nature of a lump. Ultrasound examination is excellent at diagnosing cystic swellings and characterising the breast cysts into simple, complicated or complex. Simple and complicated cysts can be kept under surveillance in most patients, and complex cysts are better biopsied or excised.
If a lump or cyst is found, a biopsy may be performed to acquire a tissue sample for further examination under a microscope. A biopsy can be done using a biopsy gun, or at times, a small surgery might be performed to obtain adequate tissue. This can help determine if the lump is cancerous or benign.
It is through symptoms that we can often tell what we're suffering from. However, certain symptoms can overlap with several health conditions, which can often be misleading. As concerning as breast lumps seem to be, it is important to get them medically examined to know whether it is cancerous or noncancerous. It can be an outcome of a breast cyst or something more concerning, like breast cancer. Having said that, consult your healthcare provider when in doubt.