Finding a lump on your breast will fill your mind with uncertainty. It is easy to think the worst and send you into a panic, but if you are breastfeeding there is a likely and easily treated alternative explanation than the big C - you may have a galactocele.
Before we explore this further please do not take anything in this article as a substitute for proper medical assistance. Be sure to get yourself checked if in this situation.
This article may be helpful for you if you:
- Have recently found a lump in your breast that has you worried.
- This lump is causing physical discomfort but is not accompanied by other symptoms, such as fatigue or fever.
- You are currently pregnant, lactating, or have you recently begun weaning your baby.
This is an issue that is not commonly discussed in breastfeeding circles, and if you have found your way to this article then hopefully it will put your mind at ease.
What is this Lump?
Simply put, a galactocele (“gah-lack-toe-seal”) is a benign cyst that appears in the breast, most of the time in a pregnant or lactating woman.
Unlike regular cysts, which are filled with clear fluid and/or blood, a galactocele is filled with milk.
Usually formed when your milk flow has become stagnant, a galactocele may be the result of breasts that are not fully drained during feedings, or the process of weaning your child.
The unused milk will begin to build up and may block a mammary duct, unable to be expressed through the nipple.
What are the Signs and Symptoms?
A galactocele is often described as a hard, somewhat moveable lump in the breast.
It may cause discomfort due to its mass and pressure, sometimes made worse by the tightness of your bra or the position you sleep in at night.
There are several breast issues that can arise during lactation that could lead to lumps forming. An indicator that you have galactoceles is that the lump is not accompanied by adverse side effects, such as fever, flu-like symptoms, and sharp pain.
These additional symptoms are more commonly associated with mastitis.
How is it Diagnosed?
For any lump in your breast, you are going to want to see your doctor. Whether you see your OB-GYN or primary physician, they are likely going to refer you to a specialist for a breast cancer screening, just to be safe.
This will include physical examination, imaging, and, in most cases, fine needle aspiration.
The first thing the specialist will do is either perform a mammogram or ultrasound, depending on whether you are currently pregnant or if you have had other radiation recently.
This helps the doctor to see the size and location of the mass, but does not help them determine exactly what it is.
Next, the doctor will likely aspirate the area. As we stated before, the fluid that will come out, if it is a galactocele, will be thick and white: your milk.
Depending on your discomfort level and the size of the mass, the aspiration will probably provide you with some much-needed relief as the pressure subsides.
Are there Different Types of Galactoceles?
Galactoceles can have varying appearances on a mammogram, based on the viscosity of the fluid inside, protein and fat content, and how old the mass is.
To help identify the type of cyst, the mass may be placed into one of two categories.
If you have ever pumped and stored your milk in the fridge, you have probably seen the separation that occurs between the water and fat content.
“New” milk in a galactocele with high fat content is labeled as a pseudolipoma, which appears completely translucent on a mammogram.
Older galactoceles appear more confusing to a specialist when viewing your mammogram/ultrasound results.
The “old” milk has become rather thick, not allowing for separation of fat and water, appearing more solid, resembling a possible breast cancer tumor, and warranting further investigation.
Dealing with a Galactocele
Options for Treatment
Honestly, there really is no “treatment” for a galactocele, but there are a few options to find relief from the pressure and discomfort.
You can either treat it as a normal blocked duct at home, or you can have it aspirated by a doctor.
As we mentioned before, a fine needle aspiration will likely be something your doctor will want to do anyway, just to have a confident diagnosis of the mass.
The release of fluid will give you some relief, especially if the cyst is rather large and causing constant discomfort.
If you choose to treat it at home, either by your own decision or your doctor’s recommendation, you can use many of the same methods recommended to treat mastitis (minus the antibiotics). Try self-massage to break up the milk blockage and provide some reprieve.
In most cases, regardless of its size and the “treatment” you may choose, a galactocele will resolve itself, especially when it occurs as a result of the weaning process.
Your milk will eventually dry up, including the existing galactocele. The change in your hormones, reverting back to pre-pregnancy, will also help, as they will no longer be producing milk.
When Should I be Concerned
It is easy to be concerned when you find a lump in your breast. With the alarming increase in breast cancer cases over the years, it is always in your best interest to have your doctor examine any breast lumps you may develop.
Once your doctor has ruled out the possibility of cancer and has determined that you simply have a milk-filled cyst in your breast, you can rest easy.
Galactoceles are never cancerous nor do they increase your chances of developing breast cancer in later years.
You will want to be careful about leaving a galactocele too long without a doctor’s examination or “treatment”. Just like with any blocked duct, a galactocele can give way to infection and mastitis, causing you to feel run down and requiring you to take antibiotics.
If you are still concerned about any masses you may find, take a few minutes to watch this video to better educate yourself on the various types of lumps that may occur in your breasts.
There is no definitive way to prevent a galactocele from returning once you have had one, aside from having the affected duct surgically removed. However, there are some things you can do that can help decrease your chances of recurrence.
The first is to make sure you are always draining your breasts while you are still actively breastfeeding. This should be number one on your list, ensuring you have made this a habit shortly after the birth of your child.
If the breasts are drained, there is no milk retained that can build up.
If you are weaning, you will want to try and express a small amount of milk to prevent build up and keep your milk flowing (somewhat) until it has completely dried up.
Be sure you only express enough to give some relief and prevent infection from setting in. Expressing too much can cause your body to think it needs to start producing milk again.
Worst case scenario, there have been cases where multiple recurrences in the same area have called for surgical removal of the affected duct. This is the only definitive way you can prevent the return of a galactocele, but it should only be considered as a last resort.
Galactoceles, while not the most common issue resulting from lactation, do occur and can affect anyone.
Their existence is no cause for concern, as they have no connection with breast cancer whatsoever, and can simply be considered a nuisance - treatable and pain-free.
If you have had experience with a galactocele, share your story with us.
Comment below with any questions, and support other mothers who may be facing the same frustration as you. And be sure to share this article with those who may find it helpful.