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How Different is a Breast Cyst from a Breast Tumour?

Breast cysts are benign fluid-filled breast masses that don't turn cancerous. Learn how they differ from a breast tumour and how to treat and prevent them from recurring.

Asian woman touching her breast to feel breast mass

A breast mass often conjures the image of breast cancer. However, not all breast masses are cancerous. Approximately 25% of all breast masses turn out to be breast cysts. These are benign, fluid-filled, round or oval structures in the breast. These may be tiny or large enough to be felt through the skin or seen on ultrasound tests.

If you feel a mass in your breast, check it out at the earliest with your doctor, but remember that it may well turn out to be a breast cyst. 

How Breast Cysts Occur 

Breast cysts are produced when the milk glands present in the breast get filled with fluid. Cysts may appear naturally as a part of the ageing process or in response to normal changes in oestrogen levels. It’s more common in women above 35 years old. They usually don’t occur after menopause unless you’re on hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the pathological cause of breast cysts is similar to that of breast cancer. Real Medical Chief TCM Physician Chu I Ta says the development of breast cysts is closely related to the Liver, Kidneys, gall bladder, and stomach. “Breast cysts or tumours develop when the body experiences a deficiency or imbalance of the yin and yang from these organs, accumulation of metabolic waste products, excess Phlegm, Stasis and Qi Stagnation”, he explains.

Symptoms of a Breast Cyst

Woman in pink T-shirt feeling her breasts
The size of breast cysts may change with your menstrual cycle.

Breast cysts may increase and decrease in size with your menstrual cycle. They’re particularly more common in cases of menstrual irregularity. If you feel a breast cyst, you can tell it‘s separate from the surrounding breast tissue and feels firm and mobile. Sometimes, if the cyst fills up rapidly with fluid, you may also experience pain. 

It’s difficult to differentiate a breast cyst from a breast tumour with a self-examination at home, so it’s strongly advisable to see your doctor if you feel any lumps. They may perform an ultrasound test or aspirate the contents of the cyst with a needle to confirm the diagnosis. The contents may be sent for further examination to rule out breast cancer. 

Breast cysts usually resolve after aspiration, but you’ll need to follow up with your doctor to ensure it doesn’t recur. If the breast cysts are too small to be palpated, they may need no further treatment. 

Prevention of Breast Cysts

A girl holding herbal pills in her hand
Herbal remedies come in the form of powders, capsules of liquids and can help prevent breast cysts from recurring.

Though most cysts resolve following the aspiration of the fluid with a needle, recurrent or new cysts are common. According to Physician Chu, determining the underlying conditions and balancing the disorders of the zang-fu (脏腑) system can prevent breast cysts from recurring. He advises regulating the Liver and stomach qi to ensure a smooth channel in the meridians and ducts in the breast.

Physician Chu also recommends the following natural remedies to prevent the recurrence of breast cysts: 

Herbal remedies for Liver and stomach Qi Stagnation 

“Liver and stomach Qi Stagnation respond well to the herbal formula Xiao Yao San (消遥散),” advises Physician Chu. It includes herbs such as Bupleuri radix (chai hu, 柴胡), white peony root (bai shao, 白芍), Atractylodes macrocephala (bai zhu, 白术), Fructus trichosanthis (gua lou, 瓜蒌), Prunella vulgaris (xia ku cao, 夏枯草), Asarum sagittarioides (shan ci gu, 山慈菇), Toosendan fructus, (chuan lian zi, 川楝子), Angelica root (dang gui, 当归),Fritillaria thunbergii (zhe bei mu, 浙贝母), Pericarpium citri reticulatae (qing pi, 青皮), and Curcuma aromaticae (yu jin, 郁金). 

He recommends the above herbal formula in patients undergoing symptoms such as emotional stress, chest tightness, tightness below the ribcage, and a dry and bitter taste in the mouth. “It‘s also important to nourish Kidney yin and tonify Spleen qi”, says Physician Chu. It enhances the body’s resistance and immunity levels, lowering the risk of breast cancer.

Herbal remedies for Kidney Yin and Blood Deficiency 

For those suffering from Kidney yin and Blood Deficiency, Physician Chu suggests the herbal formula Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan (知柏地黄丸). It includes Rehmannia glutinosa (sheng di huang, 生地黄), figwort (xuan shen, 玄参), Cyathula officinalis (chuan niu xi, 川牛膝),Asarum sagittarioides (shan xi gu, 山慈菇), white turmeric (e zhu, 莪术), Fiverleaf akebia fruit (ba yue zha, 八月札), turtle shell (bie jia, 鳖甲), Anemarrhena asphodeloides (zhi mu, 知母), Cornus officinalis (shan zhu yu, 山茱萸), and snake-needle grass (bai hua she she cao, 白花蛇舌草).

“This best suited for patients having hot flushes, warmth in chest and palm, night sweats, dry mouth, and lower back soreness,” he explains.

Acupuncture 

Physician Chu says acupuncture also holds much promise for patients with breast cysts.

A few acupoints he recommends massaging for the management of breast cysts include dan zhong (CV17, 膻中), feng chi (GB20, 风池), jian jing (GB21, 肩井), gan shu (BL18, 肝俞), pi shu (BL20, 脾俞), shen shu (BL23, 肾俞), zu san li, (ST36, 足三里), and yin ling quan (SP9, 阴陵泉). 

However, he also cautions, “Follow proper guidance of an oncology trained TCM physician for the right herbal or acupuncture treatment.” 

A healthy diet and lifestyle are important in addition to these remedies. “Some cases of breast cysts can be controlled with a good diet and lifestyle,” Physician Chu says. He also stresses “avoid self-diagnosis and treatment without the guidance of a medical professional”.

So, if you happen to find a breast cyst, don’t panic. Refer to this article for advice and consult a qualified TCM physician or medical practitioner for the most suitable remedy to prevent a recurrence.

References

  1. American Family Physician. 2000. The evaluation of common breast problems. [Accessed  22 September 2022 
  2. StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL). 2020. Breast Cyst.  Accessed 22 September 2022 
  3. BreastCancer.Org. 2022. Beast cysts. [Accessed 22 September 2022 

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