An Overview of Paget's Disease of the Breast

A rare type of breast cancer affecting the nipple or areola

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Paget’s disease of the breast, also known as Paget’s disease of the nipple and mammary Paget disease, is a rare type of breast cancer in which cancer cells develop on the surface of the nipple and the areola (the dark, round area of skin surrounding the nipple).

The majority of people with Paget's disease have either invasive breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and related breast tumors are almost always in the same breast as Paget's disease. 

Paget’s disease occurs in approximately 1% to 4% of all breast cancers. It most commonly affects females in their 50s, especially during menopause. That said, the disease may also appear in adolescents and the elderly, and in rare cases can occur in males.

Paget's disease was named after Sir James Paget, a British surgeon from the 1800s who published articles about the link between changes to the nipple and underlying breast cancer.

Several unrelated diseases are also named after Paget, including a skeletal condition known as Paget's disease of the bone and extramammary Paget disease, which includes Paget disease of the vulva and Paget disease of the penis. This article only covers Paget's disease of the breast.

Paget's disease of the breast
 Verywell / Gary Ferster

Symptoms

Paget’s disease causes the skin on the nipple and the area around it to be red, sore, flaky, and scaly. Early on, these symptoms may come and go.

Symptoms usually worsen with time and may include:

  • Itching or a burning sensation in the nipple and/or areola
  • Flaking, crusty, or thickened skin on or around the nipple
  • Pain and sensitivity
  • Flattening of the nipple
  • Yellow or bloody discharge from the nipple
  • A lump in the affected area

Symptoms of Paget’s disease are sometimes mistaken for skin conditions, including eczema or dermatitis. Paget's disease is usually only found in one breast and it can appear to improve with topical medications—potentially delaying an accurate diagnosis.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are experiencing any signs and symptoms of Paget's disease, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Early diagnosis increases the chances of successful treatments.

Diagnosis of Paget's disease may involve the following steps: 

  • Clinical breast exam: Up to 50% of people with Paget's disease of the nipple have a breast lump or an area of thickening that is felt upon clinical exam. 
  • Mammography: If you have Paget’s disease of the breast, a mammogram may show nipple and skin changes that are linked to underlying breast cancer. Your healthcare provider may also follow up with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Breast biopsy: During a breast biopsy, a small sample of tissue is taken from the lump, skin, or nipple for microscopic examination. If there is nipple discharge, it will be collected and examined as well.
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy: During this procedure, a surgeon locates and removes sentinel nodes—the first place breast cancer cells go. If a sentinel node is examined and found to be negative, it is unlikely that cancer will be found in the remaining nodes.

If cancer cells are detected in any of the biopsy samples, you will need treatment.

Causes

The cause of Paget’s disease of the breast is not known. About 80% to 90% of people with Paget's also have DCIS or invasive cancer somewhere else in the breast, according to the American Cancer Society.

Cancer cells may travel from the tumor up through the milk ducts, where they enter the nipple and areola.

Sometimes there is no underlying breast cancer, or if a tumor is present, it is unrelated to the disease in the nipple. Researchers suggest that in these instances, nipple skin cells may spontaneously change into cancer cells.

Risk Factors

The same factors that increase the risk of any type of breast cancer are also associated with Paget’s disease. 

These include:

Treatment

Surgery is the primary treatment option for Paget's disease of the breast.

There are two options:

  • Lumpectomy: This breast-conserving surgery removes the tumor from the breast. With Paget’s disease, the surgeon removes the nipple and areola, along with a cone-shaped part of the breast. Care is taken to spare as much tissue as possible while ensuring that the cancer cells are removed.
  • Mastectomy: If the underlying breast cancer is invasive, a mastectomy (removal of the whole breast) will be done. If lymph nodes are affected, these will be removed.

Lumpectomy is usually followed by radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that may be in the remaining breast tissue. Many people will have nipple reconstruction after lumpectomy and radiation are completed. 

The specific treatment that's recommended will depend on the extent of the cancer and the nature of the tumor (for example, if the tumor has estrogen or progesterone receptors).

Adjuvant Therapy

After surgery, your healthcare provider may recommend additional treatments to try to prevent a breast cancer recurrence.

These therapies may include one or a combination of the following:

Prevention

There are many risk factors that you can't control, such as getting older, but there are some lifestyle modifications that may reduce your risk of breast cancer and Paget's disease.

These include:

  • Get regular physical activity
  • Avoid or limit alcohol
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight

In addition, discuss breast cancer screenings with your doctor so that if you develop breast cancer, it can be detected as early as possible. Be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider right away.

For High-Risk Patients

If you have a high risk of breast cancer, such as a family history or a gene mutation that raises your risk, there are additional steps you can take to try to prevent it and/or catch it early if it does occur. These options include:

  • Genetic counseling
  • More frequent screenings and self-checks to look for early signs of breast cancer
  • Medicines to lower breast cancer risk
  • Preventive (prophylactic) surgery

Frequently Asked Questions

How many people with Paget’s disease have it in the breast?

Paget's disease of the breast is a separate and unrelated condition to the other diseases named after the British healthcare provider Sir James Paget.

At what age can you get Paget’s disease of the breast?

Paget's disease of the breast can occur at any age after adolescence, but it most commonly occurs in people who are in their 50s.

How quickly is Paget’s disease of the breast diagnosed?

Diagnosis of Paget's is often delayed because it is rare and can appear similar to skin conditions, such as eczema. Symptoms may occur for months before it is correctly diagnosed.

A Word From Verywell

Since Paget's disease is not common, you've likely heard less about it than more common types of breast cancer. In addition, it can be difficult to find a Paget's support group in many communities due to the limited number of people with the disease. Fortunately, online communities give you the ability to connect with people around the world who share your diagnosis. Consider reaching out for support from others facing your same challenges.

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7 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.
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  2. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Paget's disease of the breast. Updated 2017.

  3. American Cancer Society. Paget's disease of the breast. Updated September 20, 2019.

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  5. Daly B, Olopade OI. Race, ethnicity, and the diagnosis of breast cancer [published correction appears in JAMA. 2015 Feb 17;313(7):729]. JAMA. 2015;313(2):141-142. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.17323

  6. National Cancer Institute. Alcohol and cancer risk. Updated July 14, 2021.

  7. American Cancer Society. Can I lower my risk of breast cancer? Updated June 9, 2020.