Surgical decision making and factors determining a diagnosis of breast carcinoma in women presenting with nipple discharge

J Am Coll Surg. 2003 Mar;196(3):354-64. doi: 10.1016/S1072-7515(02)01606-X.


Background: There is no consensus about the use of the various diagnostic tests and surgical procedures available to confirm or rule out breast cancer in patients presenting with nipple discharge. This study was designed to identify patient and nipple-discharge characteristics associated with the diagnosis of breast cancer and to determine the utility of mammography, sonography, ductography, and cytology in surgical decision making in patients presenting with pathologic nipple discharge.

Study design: We reviewed the medical records of all patients who presented with nipple discharge at our institution between August 1993 and September 2000. Patient and nipple-discharge characteristics and findings on imaging studies and cytologic examination were analyzed.

Results: A total of 146 patients presented at our institution with nipple discharge during the study period. Of these, 52 had clinically benign discharge and were managed without surgical intervention; 94 patients had pathologic discharge and underwent a biopsy procedure for histologic diagnosis, treatment, or both. Logistic regression analysis identified mammographic (relative risk [RR] = 10.47, 95% confidence interval [CI] 2.36 to 46.39, p = 0.0002) and sonographic (RR = 5.54, 95% CI 1.27 to 25.40, p = 0.028) abnormalities as independent factors associated with a malignant diagnosis. Nineteen cancers, 62 papillomas, and 13 other benign lesions were identified among the patients with pathologic discharge. In 3 patients with cancer (15.8%) and 30 patients with a papilloma (48.4%), ductography was the only means of identifying lesions to be resected. Patients who underwent ductography-guided operation (n = 42, 50%) or any surgical procedure including a localization study (n = 66, 78.6%) were significantly more likely than patients who underwent central duct excision alone to have a specific underlying lesion identified (p = 0.045 and p = 0.033, respectively).

Conclusions: Abnormalities on mammography and sonography in patients with nipple discharge should alert physicians to the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis. In patients with pathologic discharge with normal findings on physical examination and other imaging studies, ductography might be the only means of localizing and resecting breast lesions associated with nipple discharge.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biopsy
  • Breast Diseases / diagnosis
  • Breast Diseases / surgery
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Decision Making
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Exudates and Transudates
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Mammography
  • Medical Records
  • Middle Aged
  • Nipples / pathology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultrasonography, Mammary