Symptoms and Signs of Breast Cancer vs. Cyst Differences and Similarities

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Medically Reviewed on 6/2/2022

Doctor's Notes on Breast Cancer vs. Cyst Differences and Similarities

Breast cancer is the abnormal growth, development, and spread (metastasize) of breast tissue. A cyst is a thin-walled hollow cavity usually containing a fluid. Most breast cysts are not cancerous and do not contain cancer cells, although a few may (complex cysts). Some cysts may self-resolve, but breast cancer does not. Early breast cancer and small cysts may have no symptoms, but as breast cancer advances, lumps, breast discharge, nipple inversion, and breast skin changes may occur. If a cyst produces signs or symptoms, it may cause redness, swelling, or tenderness at the site. A doctor should investigate all breast cysts carefully to rule out breast cancer.

The root cause of breast cancer development is unknown, but it occurs in women mainly and may be related to hormonal changes, alcohol consumption, diet, and other factors. The same is true for the cause of breast cyst development although some evidence suggests that excess estrogen may contribute to their development.

What Are the Treatments of Breast Cancer vs. Cysts?

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the treatment for a cyst is dependent on if it is causing problems and/or if there is an underlying problem. The majority of cysts are benign and do not need treatment. However, if they are causing symptoms, the following treatments may be used:

  • Aspirating a cyst with a needle or catheter
  • Surgically removing the cyst (including its capsule or covering)
  • Medical treatment is limited to treating underlying causes

In contrast, after the breast lesion is diagnosed (breast cancer), the following types of treatment options may be used:

  • Surgery: Surgical removal of tumor (lumpectomy or mastectomy with lymph node removal to a double mastectomy)
  • Chemotherapy stops growth or kills many types of tumor cells
  • Radiation therapy: external (beams of X-rays or protons) to stop growth or kill many types of tumors
  • Targeted therapy: drugs and/or other compounds that attack specific cancer cells
  • Hormone-blocking therapy: breast cancer cells sensitive to estrogen, progesterone
  • Immunotherapy enhances immune system to fight cancer cells

In addition, other treatments are being researched in clinical trials; inclusion in a clinical trial may be suggested by your medical team. Ask the team members to explain the clinical trial if they recommend that you join.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.