Breast Cancer and the Areola

Areola Irregularities Can Be Signs of Breast Cancer

Areolas are around the nipple in a circular area and are darker in color than the other skin of the breast. The areolas can vary in size and shape, including round or oval shapes. The skin of the areola is darker because the ducts of the mammary glands are located under it. In women, the areolas indicate the location of the mammary gland ducts. Between 15-20 small openings are located around the nipple, from which milk is released during breastfeeding. The areola also contains "Montgomery glands" that are capable of producing milk, but aren't the primary source of it. Additional glands in the areola produce oils that help lubricate the breasts during breastfeeding. The areolas protect the breasts from irritation and cracking skin; this can be caused by saliva spread from an infant breastfeeding or from leftover milk residue. 

Medical illustration of female breast, front and side view.
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Areolas and Breast Cancer

Areolas can change in color or size for many reasons, many of which are completely harmless. However, some changes are indicative of breast cancer. Knowing the different causes and expected changes can help you identify irregularities that might signal something more serious.

Every person has very different nipples and areolas, so do not try to compare yours to others as a sign of health or the presence of conditions. Instead, look for these signals:

  • Bumps: Your nipples and areolas may have bumps when you're cold or stimulated. When those sensations subside, the bumps should fade. If you notice bumps or lumps that don't go away during your monthly self-exam, you should notify your doctor. It can often be caused by minor issues like a small infection, but a persistent lump can also be a symptom of ductal carcinoma in situ or cancer inside the ducts. Only a biopsy will be able to determine if its cancer or not. 
  • Color Changes: During pregnancy or while breastfeeding, the areolas may go through significant changes in color and size. While this is normal, changes in color or size outside of pregnancy or breastfeeding may be a sign of other issues. If the areola skin appears thicker than normal, has a different texture similar to that of an orange peel or is inflamed, visit your doctor. It could be a rash, but it could also be other rare forms of breast cancer.  
  • Pain: You may occasionally have sore or tender areolas around the nipple. While this is common, particularly at different times of your menstrual cycle, you should see a doctor if the discomfort does not go away. 

Areolas and Self-Exams

It's important to not just examine the breasts during your monthly self-exam, but also the areolas and nipples. Be aware of your body's normal appearance so that you can catch any changes or irregularities quickly. If you do find any irregularities, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible to undergo a medical screening. It is likely nothing; nearly 80% of lumps and bumps in the breast are completely benign. But it's essential to get checked out to be sure. If it is breast cancer, seeking help right away will help you catch the disease early on, when it's easier to treat. 

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