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A breast lump is the most common sign of breast cancer. Finding one can be unsettling, but most breast lumps turn out to be something other than cancer. Breast cancer lumps tend to be firm and don’t usually cause pain, but there are exceptions.

In this article, we’ll go over what you should know about breast cancer lumps, other signs of breast cancer, and when you should see a doctor.

A cancerous breast lump is likely to feel firm or hard. Other features of a breast cancer lump are:

  • the edges are irregular
  • you can’t easily move it underneath the skin with your fingers
  • it’s growing
  • it’s located in the upper outer quadrant of your breast

While these characteristics are typical, breast cancer lumps can vary. Other warning signs of breast cancer are:

  • a new lump somewhere in your breast or underarm
  • thickening or swelling, even without a lump
  • skin is red, tender, and warm to the touch
  • dimpling, puckering, or scaling of the skin
  • breast or nipple pain
  • change to shape, size, or color of breast
  • blood or other unusual discharge from the nipple
  • nipple is turning inward

There are many types of breast lumps unrelated to cancer. You can’t always tell the difference by feel. It’s best to speak with a doctor to find out about next steps.

The most common place is the upper, outer quadrant. But breast cancer lumps can develop in any part of the breast or underarm.

Everyone’s breasts are different. Some are uneven and some always feel a bit lumpy. There are a variety of factors that affect how your breasts look and feel, including:

  • age
  • hormonal fluctuations
  • menstrual cycle
  • pregnancy
  • certain medications
  • weight gain or loss

Besides breast cancer, a lump in the breast may be due to:

It’s easier to treat breast cancer when it’s caught early. While most breast lumps are noncancerous, see a doctor if:

  • you’ve had a lump more than a week or two and it’s not getting smaller
  • there are other changes to your breast size, shape, or color
  • the skin on your breast is dimpled or puckered
  • your nipple is turning inward
  • you have blood or other unusual discharge from the nipple

When you visit a doctor for a breast lump, be prepared to provide information such as:

  • when you first noticed the lump
  • whether it has shrunk or grown
  • if it hurts
  • whether you’re breastfeeding
  • personal and family history of cancer

Wait-and-see approach

After a physical exam, your doctor may have an idea about what’s causing the lump and may suggest a “wait and see” approach. If that happens, here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • What do you think it is?
  • Do I need an imaging test to make sure?
  • How long should I wait before checking in again?
  • What symptoms should I look for?
  • Should I see a specialist?

If you’re not comfortable with waiting, seek a second opinion.

Diagnostic imaging

When the cause for the lump isn’t clear, your doctor may arrange for diagnostic imaging such as:

Ask your doctor to explain how the test is performed and when you can expect results.

Biopsy

If the scans reveal a suspicious mass or cancer can’t be ruled out, the next step is a biopsy. Types of breast biopsy include:

  • fine-needle aspiration
  • core biopsy
  • stereotactic breast biopsy
  • surgical biopsy

After getting a sample of breast tissue, your doctor will send it to a lab for a pathologist to examine under a microscope.

If it’s cancer, the report will include information about the specific type of breast cancer. This information, along with imaging tests and physical exam, will help determine the clinical stage.

Following surgery, a lymph node biopsy and another pathology report will provide the stage. Breast cancer type and staging will help guide treatment.

Research shows that delayed treatment is associated with more advanced disease and overall poorer survival. But when breast cancer is detected and treated early, survival rate is quite high.

Performing a monthly self-exam can help you become familiar with what’s normal for you. It can also help you spot changes early on.

There are certain features that may differentiate cancerous breast lumps from noncancerous lumps. But they don’t always hold true. If you have a breast lump, it’s best to let a doctor check it out.