Benign Breast Lumps As Harbingers

The discovery of a lump in a woman's breast often turns out to be from something other than breast cancer, but it can be a sign that a woman is at higher risk of developing the disease. And, reports The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay, new research suggests that certain lumps carry higher risks than others.

She explains that mammograms are the best screening tool we have to detect breast cancer. Experts say that, while mammograms aren't a perfect way to spot breast cancer, they're the best method for detecting the disease when it's most treatable. The theory is, that in many cases, mammograms are able to find much smaller tumors much earlier than with breast self-exams, giving physicians the chance to treat them much earlier and more effectively.

Should a suspicious lump be found, doctors could perform a biopsy, in which a small sample of the suspect tissue is removed for analysis. In the majority of cases, the tissue turns out to be non-cancerous, or what's known as benign breast disease.

A study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine looked at the different types of benign breast disease in more than 9,000 women, and found that the type of benign tissue made a big difference in the risk of developing cancer.

About two-thirds of the women had benign lumps made up of cells that weren't actively growing. The good news is that this most common type of benign tissue didn't increase the risk of developing breast cancer much at all, over an average of ten years after diagnosis.

But, Senay points out, two other types of benign tissue did come with an increased risk. Thirty percent of the women had benign but actively growing cells, and about four percent had atypical, or abnormal-looking cells that were actively growing. Even though they're considered benign, these cells are important to identify because they do elevate the risk of developing breast cancer. They need to be monitored closely and preventive measures could be considered.

After a woman gets a benign diagnosis from a breast biopsy, Senay says, age, family history and other risk factors help determine the best course of action. A woman needs to partner with her doctor to decide how to proceed. More frequent screening is often prescribed, even if the tissue is considered benign.

Highly abnormal benign growths are frequently removed as a precaution, and tamoxifen can also be prescribed to help prevent breast cancer. We still don't fully understand how and why breast cancer develops, and this study doesn't answer all the questions about the risks of benign lumps.

The American Cancer Society recommends a clinical breast exam by a doctor every three years for women 20 to 39, and a clinical breast exam and a mammogram every year for women 40 and older.

Women at higher risk because of family history or other factors may need other forms of evaluation and earlier intervention.