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 are found on the surface of the nipple and the circle surrounding it (areola).

Paget’s disease of the breast itself does not cause breast lumps or tumors. However, the majority of people with Paget's have either invasive breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and related breast tumors are almost always found in the same breast that has Paget's disease cells. 

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

Paget's disease was named after Sir James Paget, a British doctor 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 symptoms of skin conditions, including eczema or dermatitis. Paget's is usually only found in one breast and does not respond to topical medications.

If you experience itchy nipples for a day or have red, flaky skin that clears with medication, it's unlikely that it's Paget's.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing any of the above signs and symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis increases the chances of successful treatments.

Diagnosing 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: In Paget’s disease of the breast, a mammogram may reveal nipple and skin changes that are linked to underlying breast cancer. If a mammography of both breasts doesn’t show anything unusual, your doctor may follow up with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Breast biopsy: During a breast biopsy, a small sample of tissue is taken from the skin of the nipple for examination under a microscope (a sample will also be taken from the lump, if present). If there is nipple discharge, it will be collected and examined as well.
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy: In 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, your doctor will refer you to a surgeon to discuss treatment.

Causes

Doctors don't know exactly what causes Paget’s disease of the breast. Most researchers think the disease is the result of an underlying breast issue. 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.

In a few cases of Paget’s disease, there is no underlying breast cancer, or if a tumor is present, it is unrelated to the disease in the nipple. Due to this, there is another theory that 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:

  • Increasing age
  • Family history (mother, sister, or daughter) of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Personal history of breast cancer in one breast, lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), atypical hyperplasia, or certain benign breast conditions
  • Race: White women who are over 45 have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer than black and Hispanic women. However, in women under age 45, breast cancer is more common in African American women. 
  • Inherited gene mutation (e.g., BRCA1 or BRCA2)
  • Dense breast tissue
  • Previous radiation exposure to the chest
  • Use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause
  • Being overweight, especially after menopause
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

Treatment

Surgery is the primary treatment option for Paget's disease of the breast. There are two options:

  • Lumpectomy: This breast-conserving surgery removes only the diseased portion of the breast. With Paget’s disease, the surgeon removes the nipple and areola, along with a cone-shape 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 and removing the entire breast makes more sense, a mastectomy will be done instead. If lymph nodes are affected, these will be removed with a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

If a lumpectomy surgery is used to treat Paget’s disease of the breast, it is usually followed with radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that may be in the remaining breast tissue. Many women will have nipple reconstruction after their lumpectomy and once radiation is 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 receptor).

Adjuvant Therapy

After surgery, your doctor 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. These include:

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

In addition, do monthly breast self-exams and discuss breast cancer screenings with your doctor so that if you do develop breast cancer, it can be detected as early as possible.

For High-Risk Patients

If you have a high risk of breast cancer, such as having a family history or having 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 doctor 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 starting in 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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Article 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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