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Nipple Discharge and Breast Cancer: What's The Connection?

Nipple Discharge and Breast Cancer: What's The Connection?

Is there a connection between unusual breast cancer and nipple discharge?

Before we take a closer look at their possible link, it helps to first define what nipple discharge is.

Nipple discharge refers to the release of fluid from the nipple which can be expressed or spontaneously leak in approximately 50% to 70% of normal women. This type of nipple discharge is termed as “physiological discharge.”

Nipple discharge is typically normal when seen in pregnant or breastfeeding patients. It may also occur associated with changes in menstruation and fibrocystic changes in the breast.

Normal nipple discharge is milky and tends to affect both breasts (bilateral nipple discharge) and may be seen for up to 3 years after cessation of breastfeeding.

What are the Characteristics of Normal Nipple Discharge?

Normal nipple discharge is usually yellow, green, or milky in appearance. The discharge occurs only when expressed and is of no particular medical concern when appearing alone.

The discharge associated with pregnancy or breastfeeding is typically milky and may occur spontaneously or on expression.


Breast Cancer and Nipple Discharge: What’s the Real Connection?

Patients who are not pregnant or breastfeeding yet experience spontaneous nipple discharge should seek consultation with their obstetrician/gynecologist. These types of nipple discharge in these patients usually arise from a benign (non-cancerous) condition.

If your nipple discharge appears normal but is associated with other symptoms, further consultation with an obstetrician/gynecologist is recommended.

These symptoms include:

It is important to identify these associated symptoms, as breast cancer and nipple discharge can be associated in this presentation of patients.

What are the Characteristics of Abnormal Nipple Discharge?

Abnormal nipple discharge, as mentioned earlier, occurs spontaneously in non-pregnant and non-breastfeeding women. They are typically clear, brownish, or blood-tinged in appearance, and affect only one breast (unilateral).

It should also be noted that nipple discharge may require further consultation in certain patients:

  • Women older than 40 years
  • Males

Breast Cancer and Nipple Discharge

Breast cancer and nipple discharge are rarely associated with one another. Approximately less than 5% of women with breast cancer will present with nipple discharge alone. Patients who have nipple discharge associated with cancer typically present with other symptoms such as a breast lump or inverted nipple.

Paget’s disease of the nipple is a type of cancer that may cause blood-stained nipple discharge. It is a condition that causes ulceration and erosion of the skin of the nipple.

breast cancer and nipple discharge

What are Conditions that can Cause Abnormal Nipple Discharge?

There are several conditions that can cause the onset of nipple discharge and a majority of them are benign. These include the following:

Duct Papilloma

A duct papilloma is a growth that can be found within a milk duct of the breast, typically near the nipple. They tend to cause clear or blood-tinged discharge.

Nipple Eczema

Eczema refers to dermatitis or inflammation of the skin of the nipple which is often a consequence of an infection of the breast. This condition tends to cause weeping and/or crusty nipple discharge.

Duct Ectasia

This is a condition caused by the inflammation and enlargement of the walls of the milk ducts located in the breasts. It is typically seen in women post-menopause and appears yellow, green, or brown.

Excessive Prolactin Production

Prolactin is a hormone made by your pituitary gland and is responsible for the production of milk and the development of the mammary glands.

Certain Medications

Oral contraceptives, hormone replacement medications, nausea medications, antidepressants, and cocaine, and other stimulants may cause an increase in prolactin.

Other Conditions

Conditions affecting the thyroid or pituitary gland may also cause an excess amount of prolactin production.

What to Expect When Consulting your Physician

If your nipple discharge is abnormal and you feel the need to seek consultation, here’s what you can expect. Your doctor will begin their investigation with a clinical examination followed by imaging studies of the breast (mammogram, ductogram and/ or breast ultrasound). The imaging studies are done in order to detect any abnormal growths in the breast.

In the case that abnormalities are found in these tests, a breast biopsy may be needed. Breast biopsies are done in order to obtain samples of abnormal tissues within your breast which will then be examined for malignant (cancerous) tissues.

Key Takeaways

The presence of nipple discharge alone should not be of particular concern since there is no significant association between breast cancer and nipple discharge.

Conditions that are associated with nipple discharge are typically benign and consultation should only be made if there is particular discomfort or other associated symptoms present.

Learn more about breast cancer here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Written by Gerard Tamayo Updated May 26
Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel