Fibrocystic Breast vs. Cancer: What Are the Differences?

Breast lumps can be caused by fibrocystic breast tissue or cancer

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Noticing lumps in your breasts can be alarming. But in most cases, breast lumps are not breast cancer, but a sign of fibrocystic breast changes. These are normal changes to breast tissue that affect up to 90% of women throughout their lifetimes. In contrast, about 12% of American women will develop breast cancer. Some fibrocystic breast changes increase your risk for cancer, but other types do not.

This article will explain the difference between fibrocystic breast changes and breast cancer. It will cover the symptoms, causes, and treatments for each and help you understand when to get medical treatment. 

Woman in breast cancer screening with doctor

Maskot / Getty Images


Both breast cancer and fibrocystic breast changes can cause lumps in the breast. Fibrocystic breast changes are most common in women who are 30–50 years old, whereas breast cancer is more common in people 50 or older.

One way to tell whether a lump is a normal fibrocystic breast change or cancer is to determine whether it’s painful. In this context, pain is a good sign. Fibrocystic breast changes can cause pain, since they grow quickly, but in 99% of cases cancerous lumps do not cause pain.

Here’s how the symptoms of fibrocystic breast changes and breast cancer compare.

Fibrocystic breast changes:

  • Cause lumps that may be painful
  • Are most common at ages 30—50
  • Can cause lumps that change throughout the menstrual cycle, becoming worse just before your period
  • Cause lumps that feel soft or fluid-filled

Breast cancer lumps:

  • Are usually not painful
  • Are most common in people age 50 and older
  • Stay roughly the same size and in the same location
  • Tend to feel harder than cysts
  • May possibly cause swelling, redness, or itching on the breast


Fibrocystic breast changes are normal in many women. Cancer, on the other hand, is a disease that must be treated. Although both are impacted by hormonal changes, there are stark differences in the causes of these conditions.

Causes of Fibrocystic Breast Changes

Hormonal changes cause breast tissue to change throughout your lifetime. Hormonal fluctuations can lead to fibrocystic breast changes such as cysts. This is why many people notice more changes and cysts before their period. 

Causes of Breast Cancer

As with other cancers, breast cancer is caused by mutations that affect genes. These changes cause the cancer cells to grow uncontrollably. 

There are a number of risk factors that increase your odds of developing breast cancer. Many can’t be controlled. For example, breast cancer becomes more common with age and is more common in people with certain genetic mutations. Other risk factors—like drinking alcohol and not being physically active—are within your control. Hormones, especially taking hormone replacement drugs for more than five years, can increase the risk of breast cancer.


Both breast cancer and fibrocystic breast changes can be detected at home. This is why it’s important to know the normal feel of your breast tissue. Some women have many lumps naturally or they notice more lumps as they approach their period. 

Visit Your Healthcare Provider

If you find a lump that concerns you, see a healthcare provider. They can help you determine whether a lump may be cancerous. In some cases, healthcare providers can tell just from a physical exam that fibrocystic breast changes are the reasons for the lump. 

Breast Ultrasound

If your healthcare provider isn’t able to tell what caused your breast lump immediately, they may order a breast ultrasound. This test will help them determine what the lump is made of, and whether it is a normal fibrocystic breast change or cancer. The ultrasound can determine if:

  • Your lump is a fluid-filled cyst known as a simple cyst. These are harmless and do not increase cancer risk. 
  • Your lump is a complicated cyst mostly full of fluid and with some solid particles in it that might look like sand. In rare cases, these can contain cancer, so your healthcare provider may order a biopsy to look for cancer cells. 
  • Your lump is a complex cyst or solid lump, which are more likely to be cancer. You’ll need a biopsy to rule out cancer if you have a complex cyst. 


A biopsy is a procedure that removes a sample of cells for analysis in a lab. In the case of a breast lump, the biopsy is looking for any cancerous cells. If cancer cells are present, your healthcare provider will likely order more tests to diagnose breast cancer


Fibrocystic breast changes often don’t require treatment at all. Breast cancer, on the other hand, requires intensive treatments.

Treatment for Fibrocystic Breast Changes

You only need treatment for fibrocystic breast changes if you’re experiencing pain in discomfort. In that case, your healthcare provider may recommend treatments that include:

  • Draining the cyst: This is done by inserting a needle to remove fluid from the cyst. This cyst may disappear or fill with fluid again in the future. 
  • Surgery: Recurring, painful cysts can be surgically removed. 

Some lifestyle changes can also help, including:

  • Wearing a supportive bra
  • Applying heat to painful cysts
  • Using over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants

Treatment for Breast Cancer

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ll work with your healthcare provider and care team to determine the best breast cancer treatment for your specific circumstances. The treatments for breast cancer include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Targeted drug therapy
  • Immunotherapy


Neither fibrocystic breast changes or breast cancer can be prevented entirely. However, there are lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of each. 

Prevention of Fibrocystic Breast Changes

Most women will experience fibrocystic breast changes at some point. Some women report that wearing a supportive bra and avoiding stimulants like caffeine can reduce the amount of fibrocystic breast changes they notice.

Preventing Breast Cancer

Although there’s no way to prevent breast cancer entirely, there are ways to reduce your risk. These include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Individuals who are overweight are more likely to have breast cancer. 
  • Exercising regularly: People who are not active are at higher risk of cancer. 
  • Breastfeeding: Research shows that people who have carried a pregnancy to term and people who have breastfed have a lower incidence of breast cancer.
  • Avoiding alcohol: Alcohol may increase risk for breast cancer. 
  • Being cautious about hormone therapy: Some forms of hormone replacement therapy and some hormonal birth controls can increase risk of breast cancer, particularly if they’re used for more than five years. 


Finding a lump in your breast can be scary, but most lumps are not breast cancer. Normal changes that can cause lumps or cysts in the breasts. However, if you’re concerned about a lump, it’s always best to see a healthcare provider to rule out breast cancer. 

A Word From Verywell

It is not uncommon to experience lumps caused by fibrocystic breast changes. Often these aren’t cause for concern. However, contact your healthcare provider as soon as you notice a lump that feels harder than a typical cyst and notice other changes in your breasts. Your provider will be able to rule out cancer and determine the cause.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What do I do if I find a lump?

    If you find a lump that you’re concerned about, reach out to your healthcare provider. However, remember that most lumps are not cancer and many women have fibrocystic breast changes that can produce harmless lumps in their breasts. 

  • How common are fibrocystic breast changes?

    About 90% of women will experience fibrocystic breast changes, which can lead to lumps in the breast. In most cases, these lumps or cysts do not increase cancer risk. 

  • How long do fibrocystic breast changes last?

    Many notice that fibrocystic breast changes vary throughout their menstrual cycle. It’s common to notice more cysts before your period and earlier on in your cycle. 

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Susan G. Komen. If you find a lump

  2. Chen YY, Fang WH, Wang CC, Kao TW, Chang YW, Yang HF, Wu CJ, Sun YS, Chen WL. Examining the associations among fibrocystic breast change, total lean mass, and percent body fat. Sci Rep. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-27546-3.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Breast cancer risk in American women. December 2020. 

  4. American Cancer Society. Fibrocystic changes in the breast.

  5. DeMarco, Cynthia. Breast cysts and breast cancer: How can you tell the difference? MD Anderson Cancer Center.

  6. CDC. What are the risk factors for breast cancer?

  7. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society recommendations for the early detection of breast cancer.

  8. American Cancer Society. Treating breast cancer

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.