What is a galactocele?
A galactocele is a milk-filled cyst that sometimes happen to breastfeeding mothers. Don’t confuse them with an abscess, which is very similar. The difference between an abscess and a galactocele is the abscess is a pocket that is filled with pus due to an infection. A galactocele is just filled with milk, no pus, and therefore it is not infected. If you are a breastfeeding mother, you might have heard of mastitis. Abscesses are usually a result of a mastitis that was not able to get better. There is usually a lot of pain in the affected breast, and there is a detectable amount of redness and inflammation in the breast.
The galactocele can be a problem because it seemingly has no direct connection to the nipple, so the milk inside is trapped. Some people can feel pain or a lot of discomfort, and for others, no pain or very little discomfort.
If you google “galactocele,” you will find that there isn’t a lot of information out there about it. It’s not a common occurrence, or maybe it is under reported. I have found some personal accounts by moms who have shared their stories on support forums, and some other blogs like here and here and here, and one mom who shared in detail on Instagram. What I love about being in the Mom Club is that thanks to the internet and all the social media platforms that exist today, I was able to reach out to some of these moms who live all over the world and message them about their experience. I got a lot of much needed support and words of encouragement from my fellow mama warriors who survived this annoying pain in the boob.
The most common forms of treatment are to get it aspirated by a doctor with a needle, or simply leave it and it will go away when you stop breastfeeding. An aspiration is usually done with a live ultrasound, so rather than an OBGYN, they are performed by a radiologist. The radiologist or a nurse will be holding the ultrasound probe and watching the syringe incision on the screen, as they hold the syringe with the other hand.
Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you think you have it, as they are usually treated with antibiotics. Lots of bedrest is also prescribed, according to Susun Weed and many other wise women, since mastitis and other breastfeeding complications are a strong indication that the mother is TIRED. I can personally attest to this, as you will learn in my story below. Don’t be discouraged if you think that galactocele treatment at home is impossible, because it’s not. I am not encouraging this, I just want to share my story.
My son was born in June 2021. I was 35 when I had him. I had plans to give a natural birth and exclusively breastfeed until my baby was at least 12 months old. It’s funny because a couple months before my son was born, I had a conversation with a friend who was a new mom. She was telling me that with childbirth, you never get what you planned for. She had plans to do a natural birth in a hospital but wound up getting an emergency c-section, which is not an uncommon thing to hear these days.
I was blessed to get my natural birth with midwives at a birth center that was really close to my house. But breastfeeding was an absolute doozy. When my son was just 2 weeks old, I was getting absolutely terrified of having to breastfeed. I mean, every two hours, I would be getting a ton of anxiety just getting really afraid of knowing what I had to endure. It was excruciating. My nipples were cracked and bleeding, and every time he was on the boob I was swallowing back tears and screams to hide my agony. I know this sounds very dramatic, but I’m not exaggerating. It was really hard.
To fast forward, my son wound up getting a lip and tongue tie revision, and you can read all about that here. My son was 7 weeks old when my husband had to go to a family wedding in Wisconsin. Because I had no family near me, I was lucky to have one of my soul sisters come and stay with me for that weekend he would be gone. She took the greatest care of me, and for that, I will be forever grateful. I would do anything for her because of what unfolded that weekend and how awesome she was for taking care of me.
That weekend my husband was away, I was really sleep-deprived and teeming with anxiety. I was so scared to be without him because taking care of a newborn was simply so freaking hard, that I didn’t know if I could handle it on my own. Even though I had my best friend to help me, I just didn’t feel confident enough to do it without my husband. Giving birth and becoming a first-time mom made me feel so vulnerable and so emotional. Of course I knew that I was flooded with all the birth hormones that really elevated all of the feelings I had, but it really affected every aspect of my life.
I think that since I had been through so much in such a short amount of time – from the birth, to the tie revision, to the sleep deprivation, to the intense pain caused by breastfeeding – I was experiencing trauma without realizing it. And having my husband away was pushing me further into this chasm of fear that I was blindly falling into.
So the night before my husband went away, I tried to get a 4 hour stretch of sleep by skipping a feeding. Up until then, I was religiously feeding my son every 2 hours, around the clock. I was okayed by my lactation consultant to do a 4 hour stretch, so I tried. However, the next morning I woke up to an engorged right breast. It was also weird that when I tried to breastfeed him from that side, the flow was a lot less than usual. As that day went on, it started to hurt. And over the course of the weekend, it became more and more difficult to empty that breast during feeds.
By Sunday night, my breast was very red and inflamed and really painful. I was only feeding my baby from that breast every 3rd feed, and using my left breast for all other feeds. That was the biggest mistake I made right there. With mastitis, it is super important to drain the breast as much as possible. I couldn’t do this in my state of sleep deprivation and the level of pain I felt was really preventing me from wanting to try feeding him on that breast. My friend encouraged me to keep a heating pad on it, which we alternated with ice, all throughout the day. But that didn’t do anything for it. On Monday morning, we called the midwife on call at the birth center and asked for help. I was seen by them that day, and they told me it was mastitis and prescribed me an antibiotic. I was on that for a week, but it never got better. It got much worse.
By the end of that week, I was not able to get any milk out from that breast. The antibiotics didn’t do jack. So I was on the phone with the midwife on call again, who urged me to pump that breast every 2 hours. I was floored because I was in so much pain, I was taking care of a newborn, and I was so extremely deprived of sleep. I was not able to think straight, so I relied 100% on my husband to make decisions for me because I could barely see straight at this point, let alone form a complete thought.
The electric pump didn’t do squat to help me get milk out, so I was hand expressing as much as possible. I also tried the epsom salt in the hakaa trick, taking epsom salt baths and hand expressing under water, and lots of massage. But nothing helped get the milk out. Since there was no improvement by the end of the week of being on this antibiotic, I went into the birth center again to see the midwife on call. She instructed me to go to the ER. I think my heartrate was really high because of the high levels of anxiety I felt around having to go to the ER during the height of covid. I called my lactation consultant to ask her what I should do. She came over immediately, took one look at my breast, and told me she would be happy to drive me there. I packed a bag with clothes and snacks just in case, put on my UGG boots and kissed my husband and baby goodbye. I was trying so hard not to cry as my lactation consultant drove me away.
Once I got there, I waited 6 hours in the lounge. I called my dad to let him know what was happening, and he drove all the way down to San Diego from Lancaster just to wait with me in the lounge. That was a 200 mile drive he did. He could not come inside with me when I was admitted due to the heightened restrictions for covid. I was put on an IV antibiotic fluid, was given some strong pain killers, and made to wait in a room overnight. I had to ask them for a pump so I could pump my other breast. Luckily I had brought my cooler bag and ice with me for this purpose. But I did not foresee that I’d be staying overnight.
Later that night they said I have to be on NPO which means I couldn’t get any food or water because they were planning to give me a surgery the next day. As a breastfeeding mom, this sent me into another tizzy of anxiety because I was so scared of losing my milk supply which is obviously driven by how much the mom eats and drinks. Since I was down to one breast, keeping up the supply was absolutely crucial.
I woke up at around 5am on a gurney in a dark hallway somewhere. A surgeon came to my side and asked if she could examine me. “Okay,” she said, “don’t worry, we will take care of you.” She gave my shoulder a squeeze then walked away. A nurse then wheeled me into a room. I passed out again. When I woke up, I saw that I had missed calls and texts from my husband and my dad. I called my dad and let him know where I was. He said he had slept in his car in the hospital parking lot that night. I let him know where I was and they let him come and wait with me.
If you’re wondering how my newborn was doing all this time, I luckily was able to have another friend come and stay at my house with my family. She had helped raise her nieces and nephews when they were babies and was an absolute saint in disguise when she came and saved us that night. I had amassed quite a good size freezer stash of milk, so my baby was good. Thank god for her as my husband didn’t have to be alone and take care of the baby all by himself.
The next morning at the hospital, I was still being refused food or water and was given ice chips for hydration. My nurse at some point let me know that I was being transferred to a different department to be seen by a breast specialist. I had to walk myself over there. I was delirious from not eating or drinking. I hobbled over there with my dad where I met with a radiologist. Along with a couple nurses and a student doctor, they performed an aspiration on me. Before he started, he examined my breast. “Do you have an implant in there?” The skin on my breast was so taut from being so engorged that it looked like a fake breast to him. “Nope,” I answered, “it’s all milk.” They proceeded to drain the breast with a syringe, but they couldn’t get it all out. The radiologist asked for a special piece of equipment that was like attaching a vacuum and motor to the syringe, because there was some thickened milk in there that the syringe couldn’t take out. That was super painful. It was loud and the pain level was an immediate 10. I think I walked out of there as the shell of my person. I’m pretty sure my soul had checked out because of how scary all of this was.
The reason why Dr. Jack Newman of the International Breastfeeding Centre recommends that you leave a galactocele alone rather than getting the aspiration is because inevitably it will fill up again with milk in mere hours. I have read some women’s accounts of having success with getting multiple aspirations. So I proceeded to get about 15 aspirations done over the course of 4 months. I was going once a week at first, but there was no improvement. I noticed there was a red bubble on my skin next to the nipple where the skin looked very thin. When you pressed it, it would turn white so I knew there was milk being pressed against the surface. After about the 6th or 7th aspiration (which I think was causing the galactocele to fill up faster than before), it got so full that the red bubble popped and milk starting pouring out. It had created a milk fistula, which is an escape route of milk that is abnormal. I freaked out. My body was literally running amok on me – everything was so far out of my comprehension or control. The radiologist urged me to stop breastfeeding. “Your son will not be upset with you when he is older,” he pleaded. “Look at what it’s doing to your body!” But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I talked to my lactation consultant and told her through tears that I was being told to stop. She let me know how to wean gently so that it was emotionally supportive of my baby and myself. (Basically lots of cuddling and using the pacifier. She also encouraged me to cry openly if I wanted, because being open with your emotions is healthy.) I had to keep a piece of gauze taped over the milk fistula. Milk was draining out of it every time it filled up. The doctor urged me to go every other day for an aspiration to prevent it from filling back up so fast. I started to cut out a feed a day and bottle feed him milk from my freezer stash.
A week into this madness, and I got a different radiologist to perform the aspiration. This was about the 11th or 12th one. The doctor was female, and was head of the department. She told me she nursed all 3 of her babies and never experienced mastitis. I let her know my goal was to breastfeed until 12 months, and she said she didn’t think I had to stop breastfeeding. That did it. In that moment, I 100% committed to breastfeed my son, despite all these aspirations and craziness. My poor husband had just gotten used to the idea of my weaning him off, and now had to get 100% onboard with me to continue breastfeeding him. The fistula also healed pretty quickly, so after about the 15th aspiration, I stopped going back. I let the galactocele do its thing.
It filled up to the size of a baseball, and it was really hard. It was very uncomfortable having a hard ball on my chest. I couldn’t even hold my son on my right side without feeling discomfort. I lasted like that for a month. And in November, 4 months after all of this started, I went back for the final aspiration. The radiologist was shocked at how big it had gotten. They measured it via ultrasound to be 10cm in diameter. That’s 3 and a half inches, y’all. It was my whole boob! The aspiration yielded a little over 6 oz of milk. No infection. And that was the last time.
I then sought out a clinical herbalist. My interest in plant medicine and herbal wisdom was peaking, thanks to the Medicine Stories podcast. The herbalist put me on a protocol which I followed for a couple months, but the galactocele did not go down. It just stayed there, floating in space like an innocent marble.
It was really hard, and I could move it around in there without hurting. Then the holidays came and we had to get through that. Except I was extremely lop-sided and if breastfeeding hadn’t already killed my libido, having lop-sided breasts most certainly did. I was really self conscious about it and had a hard time being intimate with my husband. He is so sweet and understanding and showed me a lot of compassion in his own ways, which I am so grateful for. I have never felt so vulnerable.
Then I discovered Matt Blackburn and his brand, Mitolife. I learned about lipofuscin, calcification and fibrosis. My intuition told me that the hardness of the galactocele was due to all of the above, and that the excess scar tissue could use some help of the Dissolve It All, which is a systemic enzyme supplement. I began Matt’s CLF Protocol in the first week of January and instantly started to feel better. I had increased energy and way less anxiety. And about a week and a half into it, I started to feel some pain in the scar tissue at the bottom of my right breast where the radiologist used the same hole for the aspiration about 8 times. Over the next few days, the pain moved up and into the center of my breast, right behind the nipple, where the galactocele was. I noticed it was feeling a lot softer and more malleable. Then about 2 weeks in, the pain got markedly sharp and I couldn’t touch my breast without wincing in pain. Every time my baby or the dog or my husband brushed against it, it would hurt. It was also looking red next to the nipple. The scar where the fistula closed up was also very red and feeling very thin again. I could see it turn white when I pressed it, just like it did before the last aspiration. The enzyme supplement worked really freaking fast – it had melted the scar tissue in different areas of my breast. And damn, that pain. My PTSD kicked in; is it infected? AGAIN?!!!!
I waited 4 days to see what would happen. I took echinacea tincture, my poke root and lymph tinctures from the herbalist, drank a lot of water and prioritized resting. The infection didn’t get worse, but it didn’t get better either. I started googling and came across the old castor oil pack. The castor oil pack is an old friend, since I was doing them frequently while on the herbalist’s protocol. I busted it out again and laid there one night with the hot water bottle over my boob, soaking in the castor oil goodness. Then while I was putting my baby down to sleep, I remembered the pack and went to go take it off. And holy cow, the pack had stuck to the skin of where the fistula scar was, and broke it, forming a small hole. I took that opportunity to let it drain all the milk that was in there for the last 3 months. Baby had to be placed on the floor next to me as I leaned over the sink, because there was a lot more milk in there than I realized. Sure enough, there was a lot of pus coming out as well, thanks to the infection. As it was all coming out, I felt instantly better, the pain was gone. After it was all out, I cleaned the area with alcohol and put a bandaid over the hole. Then I went to sleep.
The next few days, I was high on life. I was so excited to have my boob back after all this time! Free from invaders and abnormal obstructions! I really have to thank Matt’s CLF Protocol and the Dissolve It All supplement for helping me get rid of the galactocele once and for all. To this day, we are still exclusively breastfeeding. Our bodies are incredible, and this experience showed me just how much I can endure. Parenting is bar none the hardest job, but it’s hard because the reward is that much better. My son is going to be 8 months old next week and I’m confident that we can continue breastfeeding until he’s at least 12 months old. Let’s go!