When to Worry About Breast Lumps

What’s the difference between a hard lump and a movable lump in your breast? Learn what the size and mobility of breast lumps may mean for your health and breast cancer risk.

a woman meeting with her doctor to discuss breast lumps
Don’t panic: A lump in your breast may not mean breast cancer.Alamy

You’re in the shower, conducting your monthly breast self-exam, and suddenly your hand freezes. You’ve found a lump. Now what?

First, don’t panic. A breast lump is a growth of tissue inside the breast, and 80 percent of these lumps are benign, meaning they are noncancerous, according to Stony Brook Cancer Center.

This is especially true in women younger than 40. Not only that, but if you’ve been having regular mammograms, and if those mammograms have been negative, the odds are even better that your lump is not breast cancer.

Even armed with that knowledge, it’s hard not to worry if you find a lump. At the very least, you’ll have questions. How do you differentiate between a lump that is breast cancer and one that is benign? What causes benign breast lumps? And do they go away on their own?

When to Worry About Breast Lumps

What’s the difference between a hard lump and a movable lump in your breast?
When to Worry About Breast Lumps

What Does a Breast Lump Feel Like?

Different lumps have different textures, and even two lumps of the same type may feel different from each other. A cyst, for example, may feel like a small water balloon, or it may feel firmer, like a grape.

?A lump caused by mastitis (a type of infection), may be shaped like a wedge and feel warm to the touch.

Other types of lumps may be round or look like dimples in your skin. Certain lumps may also cause your nipple to be pulled in.

Ultimately, a lump of any type should be addressed by your doctor. If you find a lump, it’s important to schedule an appointment.

Common Signs of Benign Breast Lumps

Your breasts are made up of fat, nerves, blood vessels, fibrous connective tissue, and glandular tissue, as well as an intricate system of milk-producing lobules (where milk is made), and ducts (thin tubes that carry milk to the nipple).

This anatomy in and of itself creates a lumpy, uneven terrain.

Important signs to consider when evaluating breast lumps include:

  • Size
  • Mobility
  • Type of edges
  • Pain
A harmless or benign breast lump is often solid and well-defined — you can feel all of the edges and can move it a bit. These lumps can vary in size from that of a pea to several inches in diameter, like a golf ball.

What typically differentiates a benign lump from a cancerous lump is its mobility and how defined its edges are. It is usually difficult to feel all of the edges of a cancerous lump because of the irregular growth pattern of cancers, although many early cancers can be mobile. Also, cancerous lumps typically grow into surrounding breast tissue, whereas benign tumors usually can be rolled between the fingers and don’t invade the surrounding breast tissue.

Breast cancer also does not usually cause pain. Benign conditions sometimes do, although there are exceptions to this rule as well. For instance, a rare form of breast cancer known as inflammatory breast cancer may cause symptoms such as aching, tenderness, pain, or burning in the breast. This is because inflammatory breast cancer can spread into the skin and lymphatic tissues of the breast.

The only way to know the status of a lump for sure is to consult your doctor. Depending on your age, history, and physical examination findings, you may need a mammogram, ultrasound, or potentially a core needle biopsy, in which a needle is used to extract a core of tissue to determine the type of lump you have. If imaging shows a benign breast cyst, a finer needle may be used to drain the fluid. This fluid is sometimes sent for laboratory evaluation if it appears concerning.

Not all benign breast lumps will require additional testing, at least not right away. If you find what appears to be a fluid-filled cyst in your breast during your menstrual period, for instance, your doctor may want to check your breast again at the end of your period to see if the cyst has disappeared. If the cyst goes away, you and your doctor will know your lump was indeed benign and related to the hormonal fluctuations associated with menstruation.

What Are Some Common Causes of Benign Breast Lumps?

Most benign breast lumps and conditions are directly related to your menstrual cycle, fluctuations in your hormones, or the fluid buildup that comes with your monthly period. Other benign breast lumps and conditions may be related to plugged milk ducts, infections, or even breast injuries. The risk for benign breast conditions increases for women who have a hormonal imbalance, use hormone replacement therapy, or have a family history of benign breast disease or breast cancer.

Here are some of the most common benign breast conditions.

Fibroadenoma?

These benign lumps occur primarily in young girls and women in their teens and twenties. They often grow during pregnancy but shrink during menopause, according to Mayo Clinic.

They can vary in size from a few millimeters to several inches in diameter and can be very painful. Fibroadenomas are typically round, movable under the skin, and with well-defined edges you can feel. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may perform an ultrasound-guided core biopsy, and, if necessary, a surgical removal. If the fibroadenoma shrinks or doesn’t grow over time, you may decide with your doctor to continue to watch the mass closely and not have it surgically removed.

Cysts?

These are round or oval fluid-filled sacs, and they are often tender to the touch, especially as they increase in size. They may come and go with your menstrual period, becoming larger and more tender at the beginning of your period and disappearing at the end.?Ultrasound is the best imaging method to determine if a lump is a simple cyst or a complicated cyst, which requires further examination. Large cysts may require needle aspiration to drain the fluid, and the fluid may be sent to a lab for further evaluation if deemed necessary, per the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Fibrocystic Changes?

These changes cause a general lumpiness that can be described as “ropy” or “granular,” and they affect at least half of all women. Symptoms of fibrocystic change include tender, fibrous, rubbery tissue; a thickening of tissue; or a round, fluid-filled cyst. These changes, which are related to hormonal fluctuation, may increase as you approach middle age and disappear with menopause. Birth control pills may be recommended to ease symptoms.

Nipple Discharge?

Sometimes women experience nipple discharge with or without a breast lump. Nipple discharge often varies in color from clear or white to dark green, yellow, or brown. Clear or bloody nipple discharge is often cause for concern and requires further examination and imaging. Nipple discharge that is spontaneous and comes from only one nipple is also suspicious, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and requires breast imaging. Discharge that comes from multiple ducts in the same nipple is not concerning, whereas discharge from a single duct only is suspicious.

Mastitis?

An infection of the milk duct, mastitis can create a lumpy, red, and warm breast, accompanied by fever. It occurs most commonly in women who are breastfeeding, but it can occur in nonbreastfeeding women as well. Treatment involves ice packs, pain relievers, and antibiotics, if the cause is bacterial.

?Bacterial mastitis can also occur in a nonbreastfeeding or post-menopausal woman.

Fat Necrosis?

This occurs when fatty breast tissue is damaged by an injury to the breast through unintentional trauma to the breast or by surgery, such as a breast reduction. It results in firm, poorly defined lumps that can be quite tender to the touch. Fat necrosis often has a suspicious appearance on examination and imaging, so even with a history of injury or trauma to the breast, a core biopsy may be recommended to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes, fat necrosis evolves into an oil cyst, which has a very distinct appearance on a mammogram and is harmless.

Other, Less-Common Conditions?

Some medical conditions cause breast lumps, including hyperplasia, which is an overgrowth of cells in the breast ducts or lobules; adenosis, which causes enlarged lobules; intraductal papilloma, a polyp-like growth of gland tissue that grows in the duct; and lipoma, which is a benign fatty tumor.

Signs Your Breast Lump May Be Cancerous

Although most breast lumps are benign, some do turn out to be cancerous. If a cancerous lump isn’t treated, it will continue to grow and invade healthy nearby tissue, and can spread to other areas in the body. That’s why it’s always important to contact your doctor as soon as possible after finding a breast lump.

Your doctor will want to see you in the office to perform an exam. However, don’t be alarmed if they also order additional tests, such as a mammogram, MRI, or ultrasound. Additional testing does not automatically mean that your lump is cancerous. It just means that your doctor wants more information.

Most cancerous breast tumors first appear as single, hard lumps or thickening under the skin. Other signs to watch for include:

  • Changes in nipple appearance
  • Nipple secretions
  • Nipple tenderness
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
About half of all cancerous breast lumps appear in the upper, outer quadrant of the breast, extending into the armpit; about 18 percent of breast cancer tumors show up in the nipple area; around 11 percent are found in the lower quadrant; and 6 percent are located in the lower, inner quadrant.

What to Do if You Feel a Lump in Your Breast

Most benign breast conditions are treatable, and some will even go away on their own, but it’s best to have your doctor confirm which approach is best for you. All breast lumps should be evaluated by a medical professional, who will help you decide how to proceed. Because of the fluctuations in breast tissue that occur in response to hormonal changes throughout the month, it’s typically a good idea to do a self-exam at the same point every month, such as a few days after the end of your menstrual cycle.

The Takeaway

While a lump may be the first sign of breast cancer, the majority of breast lumps are benign (not cancerous). These can be caused by a variety of factors, including hormonal changes, thickening of your breast tissue, damage to the fatty breast tissue, and an infection of your milk ducts. Most benign lumps are treatable, but it’s best to have your doctor confirm the right approach for you.

Resources We Trust

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.

Sources

  1. Different Kinds of Breast Lumps. Stony Brook Cancer Center.
  2. Breast Cysts. Mayo Clinic. January 9, 2024.
  3. Mastitis. Cedars-Sinai.
  4. Breast Lumps. Cleveland Clinic. May 19,2023.
  5. Anatomy of the Breast. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
  6. Fibroadenoma. Cleveland Clinic. May 16, 2023.
  7. Depolo J. Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). BreastCancer.org. April 20, 2024.
  8. Core Needle Biopsy of the Breast. American Cancer Society. January 14, 2022.
  9. Fibrocystic Breasts. Mayo Clinic. April 4, 2023.
  10. Benign Breast Disease. Cleveland Clinic. November 7, 2023.
  11. Fibroadenoma. Mayo Clinic. October 13, 2022.
  12. Breast Cysts. The National Breast Cancer Foundation. January 17, 2024.
  13. Nipple Discharge. Cleveland Clinic. March 20, 2023.
  14. Mastitis. Cleveland Clinic. February 6, 2023.
  15. Mastitis. UC Health.
  16. Fat Necrosis. Cleveland Clinic. September 12, 2022.
  17. Non-Cancerous Breast Disease. Columbia Surgery.
  18. Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms. American Cancer Society. January 14, 2022.
Show Less
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news