Mammary Duct Ectasia Self-Exam: do you need to be worried?

Understanding Duct Ectasia

Occurring most often during the years just prior to menopause (typically 40 to 44 years of age), mammary duct ectasia is caused by ducts in the breast that become clogged or blocked. While sometimes mistaken for breast cancer, mammary duct ectasia is not cancer and does not increase your risk of developing breast cancer. While a specific cause of mammary duct ectasia hasn't been identified, the condition is believed to be related to a bacterial infection called mastitis that can develop in a milk duct.

How to Do a Self-Exam

A condition like mammary duct ectasia is an example of a change in breasts that is not worrisome and may completely correct itself. However, it is important to perform regular breast self-exams to be aware of any unusual feelings or sensations in breasts as early as possible. Since mammary duct ectasia doesn't usually present symptoms, it's during self-exams that tenderness or unusual tissue growths are often discovered.

Perform a self-exam by:

  • Standing in front of a mirror, lying down, or doing a self-check in the shower.
  • Using the pads of your fingers to move from the outermost area of your breasts inward to the center.
  • Looking for dimpling, hardening of tissues, tenderness, puckering, or other unusual changes.
  • Repeating motions of the fingers with light, medium, and firm pressure.

Note: Few women's breasts match exactly, so don't consider lack of symmetry alone as a sign something may be wrong.

What to Look for During Your Self-Exam

There's no way to be certain that an abnormality you may find during a self-exam is mammary duct ectasia. Although possible signs may include redness around nipples, detectable thicknesses near the affected duct, nipple discharge, or an inward turned nipple.

When to See a Doctor

See your doctor if you notice anything unusual during a self-exam. It's best to err on the side of caution and have anything out of the ordinary checked out.

Contributing Factors and Risk Factors

Mammary duct ectasia may be related to age-related changes in breast tissues. These changes may cause milk ducts to widen, harden, or become inflamed. Cigarette smoking is a possible risk factor since chemicals in cigarette smoke have been linked to tissue inflammation and may trigger changes to breast tissues and milk ducts.

Possible Preventative Measures

Maintaining a healthy diet may help keep milk ducts healthy. However, dietary adjustments are not a typically recommended preventative measure specific to mammary duct ectasia. Although staying away from processed meats, trans fats, and smoked foods can certainly keep tissues within your body healthy, which may minimize your risk of experiencing abnormalities or issues with the ducts in your breasts. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water may also be keep ducts healthy. Exercises that involve repetitive motions of the upper arms may also contribute to issues with the same ducts usually affected by mammary duct ectasia.

According to the American Cancer Society, women should start regular breast cancer screenings with mammograms between the ages of 40 and 44 and those screenings should be yearly from age 45 through age 54. Beyond that point, it's considered safe to switch to every other year or continue with annual exams, if you wish. If you have an irregularity like what's caused by mammary duct ectasia, see your doctor as soon as you notice it to be safe.