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Breast Lump: Is My Breast Lump Normal or Cancerous? What To Do If You Find One

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Last updated January 14, 2021

Breast lump quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your lump.

Understand your breast lump symptoms, including 7 causes, common questions and must knows.

12 most common causes

Breast lump quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your lump.

Take breast lump quiz

Breast lump symptoms

It's unlikely that anyone wants to describe something in their body as a "lump," however, lumps in the breast are common and are not necessarily dangerous. Healthy breast tissue is naturally lumpy because if contains ducts and tissue designed for milk production. You shouldn't be concerned if both breasts have the same degree of "lumpiness". It is only concerning when you find a lump that seems out of place or different than the surrounding tissue. Breast lumps in women are usually due to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, lactation (nursing), or aging. Occasionally, lumps are caused by infection or injury.

The following descriptions are very general. There can be variations in every breast lump, and anything you feel uncertain about should be examined by your physician.

Common characteristics of benign breast lumps

Benign breast lumps are most often described as the following.

  • Fairly soft, smooth, and rounded
  • Easily moveable
  • Found either in the breast itself or in the armpit
  • Sore or painful if touched or pressed
  • Found in both breasts

Common characteristics of suspicious breast lumps

A more suspicious breast lump will be:

  • Small and firm, like the tip of your nose
  • Painless when touched or pressed
  • Found in the breast itself or in the armpit
  • Most often found in only one breast

Duration of symptoms

Your breast lump symptoms may be temporary or persistent, depending on the cause.

  • Cyclical: Some lumps may come and go related to the menstrual cycle.
  • Temporary: Some lumps are temporary and connected to trauma, infection, or certain medications.
  • Persistent: Others breast lumps may appear for no apparent reason and remain.

Who is most often affected?

The following people are more likely to be affected by breast lumps.

Are breast lumps serious?

The severity of your breast lump will ultimately be determined by the cause.

  • Not serious: All breasts have some degree of lumpiness and fibrous tissue in them, which is normal.
  • Possibly serious: Any unexplained lump is more concerning, though most turn out to be benign.
  • More serious: Painless lumps that appear only on one breast, or in or near one armpit, should be investigated further.

Breast lump causes

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms. If your breast lump does not go away, grows in size, becomes painful, or otherwise causes you distress, you should see a physician.

Hormonal changes

Because breast tissue is sensitive to female hormones, lumps may become more evident during certain points in a woman's life.

  • Menstrual cycle: Movable, rubbery lumps in the milk ducts and surrounding tissue are sometimes more evident at various points in the menstrual cycle, due to the varying levels of hormones.
  • Pregnancy: The breasts will often feel lumpy during pregnancy because they are enlarging in preparation for breastfeeding.
  • During breastfeeding: The milk ducts and milk-producing tissue are both enlarged and constantly changing during lactation and may feel different from hour to hour, depending on how much milk is in the breast.
  • Pre-menopause and menopause: The wide variations in hormone levels as the body adjusts to menopause can cause the breasts to become more dense and fibrous and somewhat more lumpy and tender.

Infectious causes

A bacterial infection of the milk duct is not uncommon in a breastfeeding mother. It will cause the breast to look and feel hot, lumpy, reddened, and painful. These lumps are caused by infection and not by any sort of tumor (benign or suspicious).

Traumatic causes

Any physical damage to the breast tissue may result in scar tissue that will probably feel like a lump. The trauma may be due to any sort of injury, accidental or otherwise, or surgery.

Medications and supplements

Certain types of medications and supplements are known to cause benign lumps in the breast.

  • Birth control pills
  • Hormone replacement therapy: These are given to some menopausal women to ease hot flashes and other symptoms.
  • Soy products and supplements: These can be purchased over-the-counter and are helpful to some menopausal women for other symptoms but may result in breast lumps.
  • Caffeine: Some women report an improvement in breast lumps and fibrous changes if they eliminate caffeine from their diet.

Cancerous causes

Only about 20 percent of suspicious breast lumps prove to be cancerous, but any lump you are uncertain about can easily be examined with a mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy.

7 possible breast lump conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced breast lump. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Symptoms of menopause

Menopause, or "change of life," refers to the time when a woman no longer has menstrual cycles and can no longer bear children.

It is a normal occurrence and usual happens between ages 45 to 55. Menopause can be artificially induced by surgical removal of both ovaries, and by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy for cancer.

Symptoms usually begin many months before periods actually stop. There will be irregular periods, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, weight gain from slower metabolism, and dry skin.

If not treated, some symptoms may affect quality of life. Hot flashes and hormonal imbalances can disrupt sleep, sexual function, and emotional health.

At menopause, risks of heart disease, osteoporosis, and urinary incontinence increase. Because periods can become irregular while pregnancy is still possible, testing is advisable before any medical treatment is done.

Menopause is diagnosed when an entire year has gone by without the woman experiencing a menstrual period. Blood testing for hormone levels can confirm menopause.

Treatment can be done for any troublesome symptoms, including hormone replacement therapy to ease hot flashes.

Breast lump quiz

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Skin cyst

A cyst is a small sac or lump, filled with fluid, air, fat, or other material, that begins to grow somewhere in the body for no apparent reason. A skin cyst is one that forms just beneath the skin.

It's believed that skin cysts form around trapped keratin cells – the cells that form the relatively tough outer layer of the skin.

These cysts are not contagious.

Anyone can get a skin cyst, but they are most common in those who are over age 18, have acne, or have injured the skin.

Symptoms include the appearance of a small, rounded lump under the skin. Cysts are normally painless unless infected, when they will be reddened and sore and contain pus.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination. A small cyst can be left alone, though if it is unsightly or large enough to interfere with movement it can be removed in a simple procedure done in a doctor's office. An infected cyst must be treated so that the infection does not spread.

Skin abscess

A skin abscess is a large pocket of pus that has formed just beneath the skin. It is caused by bacteria getting under the skin, usually through a small cut or scratch, and beginning to multiply. The body fights the invasion with white blood cells, which kill some of the infected tissue but form pus within the cavity that remains.

Symptoms include a large, red, swollen, painful lump of pus anywhere on the body beneath the skin. There may be fever, chills, and body aches from the infection.

If not treated, there is the risk of an abscess enlarging, spreading, and causing serious illness.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

A small abscess may heal on its own, through the body's immune system. But some will need to be drained or lanced in a medical provider's office so that the pus can be cleaned out. Antibiotics are usually prescribed.

Keeping the skin clean, and using only clean clothes and towels, will help to make sure that the abscess does not recur.

Plugged breast duct

If you're making milk faster than it's getting expressed, it can get backed up in the duct. When this happens, the tissue around the duct may become swollen and inflamed and press on the duct, causing a blockage.

You can safely treat this condition on your own by continuing nursing and draining your breast as much as possible after each feeding. If you develops a fever or significant discomfort, contact your physician.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: breast pain, breast lump, painful breast lump

Symptoms that never occur with plugged breast duct: fever, breast redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lipoma

Lipoma is a word that translates as "fatty tumor," but a lipoma is not cancer. It is simply a growth of fat between the muscle layer and the skin above it.

The exact cause is not known. The condition does run in families and is associated with other unusual syndromes such as adiposis dolorosa, which is similar. Lipomas most often appear after age 40.

Symptoms include a soft, easily moveable lump beneath the skin, about two inches across. A lipoma is painless unless its growth is irritating the nerves around it. They are most often found on the back, neck, and abdomen, and sometimes the arms and upper legs.

It is a good idea to have any new or unusual growth checked by a medical provider, just to make certain it is benign.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, biopsy, and imaging such as ultrasound or CT scan.

Most of the time, treatment is not necessary unless the lipoma is unsightly or is interfering with other structures. It can be removed through surgery or liposuction.

Intraductal papilloma

Breast problems such as lumps are very common and often not caused by breast cancer. An intraductal papilloma is such a benign breast lump situated in the milk ducts.

All new breast lumps should be examined by a doctor to determine if further testing is needed, so the best thing to do is to make an appointment with your primary care physician.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: breast lump, painful breast lump, painless breast lump, white or clear fluid leaking from the breast, nipple lump

Symptoms that never occur with intraductal papilloma: armpit lump

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Fibrocystic breast changes

Fibrocystic change is a generalized term used to describe a variety of benign changes in the breast. Symptoms of this condition are breast swelling or pain, as well as nodules, lumpiness, or nipple discharge.

You should visit your primary care physician to evaluate the lump. Diagnosis typically just involves a physical exam and imaging. A biopsy would be needed in case scarier things need to be ruled out, but it's not always necessary. Treatment of a cyst involves aspirating the contents of the cyst, a mass just needs a biopsy with no further treatment, and nipple discharge doesn't require treatment.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: breast lump, hard breast lump, nipple discharge, rope-like breast lump

Symptoms that always occur with fibrocystic breast changes: breast lump

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Fibroadenoma

Fibroadenomas are solid, noncancerous breast tumors that occur most often in adolescent girls and women under the age of 30. You might describe a fibroadenoma as firm, smooth, rubbery or hard with a well-defined shape.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options.

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

Breast cyst

A breast cyst is a fluid-filled sac (like a tiny balloon) inside the breast. Breast cysts are common in women. They might cause a little pain, but they are usually benign (not cancerous).

You should visit your primary care physician within the next 24 hours to evaluate the lump. Diagnosis typically just involves a physical exam and imaging. Sometimes a biopsy is needed to rule out other causes. Treatment of a cyst involves aspirating the contents of the cyst (sucking the stuff out).

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: breast pain, breast lump, painful breast lump, movable breast lump

Symptoms that always occur with breast cyst: breast lump

Symptoms that never occur with breast cyst: armpit lump, fever

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Breast cancer

Breast cancer has several names, depending on the part of the breast where it starts:

  • Lobular carcinoma affects the milk glands.
  • Ductal carcinoma affects the milk ducts.
  • Sarcoma affects the connective tissue.
  • Paget's Disease affects the nipple and areola.

Women over age 50 with a family history of the disease, and/or certain genetic factors, are most at risk, but anyone can get breast cancer at any age. It is rare in men but does occur.

Symptoms include a lump, thickening, or pain anywhere in the breast or armpit; red, flaky, or irritated breast or nipple skin; nipple discharge; and any area of irregular skin or misshapenness.

Many harmless conditions can cause similar signs, so it is important to see a medical provider about any of these symptoms.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; imaging such as ultrasound, mammogram, or MRI; and sometimes biopsy.

Treatment involves a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

The best prevention is a combination of screening mammograms as recommended by the medical provider, and monthly self-examination.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: breast pain, armpit lump, breast mass or retraction, breast lump, nipple discharge

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Breast cancer

Breast cancer has several names, depending on the part of the breast where it starts:

  • Lobular carcinoma affects the milk glands.
  • Ductal carcinoma affects the milk ducts.
  • Sarcoma affects the connective tissue.
  • Paget's Disease affects the nipple and areola.

Women over age 50 with a family history of the disease, and/or certain genetic factors, are most at risk, but anyone can get breast cancer at any age. It is rare in men but does occur.

Symptoms include a lump, thickening, or pain anywhere in the breast or armpit; red, flaky, or irritated breast or nipple skin; nipple discharge; and any area of irregular skin or misshapenness.

Many harmless conditions can cause similar signs, so it is important to see a medical provider about any of these symptoms.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; imaging such as ultrasound, mammogram, or MRI; and sometimes biopsy.

Treatment involves a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

The best prevention is a combination of screening mammograms as recommended by the medical provider, and monthly self-examination.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: breast pain, armpit lump, breast mass or retraction, breast lump, nipple discharge

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Breast abscess

Breast abscess is a complication of mastitis, which is an inflammation of the breast tissue. An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms within the breast, usually just under the skin.

Most susceptible are women who are breastfeeding. Bacteria can be transferred into the milk ducts from the skin or from the infant's mouth. Women not breastfeeding can be infected through a sore nipple or from a nipple piercing.

If a milk duct is blocked through trauma, compression, or incomplete emptying, bacteria can gain a foothold and an abscess can form.

The abscess forms a hot, reddened, painful lump in the breast. There will be flu-like symptoms of fever, chills, fatigue, and body aches.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and sometimes a milk sample.

Treatment is with antibiotics along with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Unless otherwise directed by the medical provider, it is safe to continue nursing the baby. If the abscess persists, it may be drained under local anesthesia with a needle and syringe.

Breast lump quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your lump.

Take breast lump quiz

Breast lump treatments and relief

At-home treatments

Perform a breast self-examination every month. There are good instructions available on many websites, or you can ask for a pamphlet from your physician's office.

When to see a doctor

You should schedule an appointment to see your doctor for the following. Together, you can decide what the best treatment plan is for you by determining the cause.

  • A firm, painless lump anywhere in the breast or underarm area: This is the most concerning type.
  • Any other kind of unexplained lump or thickening in the breast or underarm

When it is an emergency

Seek immediate breast lump treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if you are breastfeeding and develop reddened, lumpy, painful breasts along with fever and if you are feeling ill in general. This is an infection of a milk duct and requires antibiotics right away.

FAQs about breast lump

Here are some frequently asked questions about breast lumps.

Why does the lump in my breast hurt?

A painful breast lump can be caused by many conditions. Some breast discomfort can be caused by hormonal changes during the menstrual period as differing amounts of estrogen and progesterone cause the ducts of the breast to grow and atrophy. Breast pain can also be non-cyclical and can be caused by large breasts, hormone replacement therapy, growth of breast ducts (ductal ectasia), and infection of the breast caused by breastfeeding.

What kind of breast lumps are normal?

Benign breast lumps include fibroadenomas (rubbery masses that can be moved around), cysts (fluid-filled masses), fibrocystic changes (breast inflammation and swelling associated with menses), galactocele (milk-retention cyst), and fat necrosis (a benign condition caused by trauma to fat).

Why do my breast lumps move?

Breast lumps may be mobile or move if they are touched. This ability to be rolled or moved is often associated with benign breast masses. Breast lumps that are stationary or fixed to the underlying muscle are likely to be malignant.

Can a benign breast lump turn into cancer?

Yes, it is rare but a benign breast lump can become cancerous. For example, a fibroadenoma is fat-based cancer. A small fraction of fibroadenomas are actually phyllodes tumors — a separate, benign type of tumor that is extremely slow-growing. A small portion of phyllodes tumors can be cystosarcoma phyllodes — a rare malignant tumor.

Why do I notice breast lumps around the time of my period?

Fibrocystic changes of the breast are the medical term used for breast changes that may or may not be moderately painful and occur in sync with the menstrual cycle. They can occur on one breast or both breasts and can be affected by the hormones in birth control pills. Usually, they involve a mildly tender area in one or both breasts that tends to grow and recede in time with the menses.

Questions your doctor may ask about breast lump

  • Please say more about the lump on your breast. Do you feel pain when you touch the lump?
  • Do you currently use estrogen as a hormone replacement therapy?
  • Tell me more about the lump on your breast. When rubbing your lump, can you move the lump slightly from side-to-side?
  • Please indicate where the lump is located on your breast.stions:

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Share your story
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

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  2. Breast Anatomy and How Cancer Starts. National Breast Cancer Foundation. National Breast Cancer Foundation Link
  3. Breast Changes and Conditions. National Institutes of Health: National Cancer Institute. NCI Link
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  5. Fibrosis and Simple Cysts in the Breast. American Cancer Society. Updated Sept. 20, 2017. American Cancer Society Link
  6. Boakes E, Woods A, Johnson N, Kadoglou N. Breast Infection: A Review of Diagnosis and Management Practices. Eur J Breast Health. 2018;14(3):136-143. Published July 1, 2018. NCBI Link
  7. Breast Biopsy. Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  8. Breast Self-Exam. National Breast Cancer Foundation. National Breast Cancer Foundation Link