woman worrying about a breast lump she foundShare on Pinterest
Westend61/Getty Images

Whether you found it during a breast self-exam or quite by accident, you might be worried about having a breast lump. It’s totally understandable because a breast lump may be the first sign of breast cancer. But most breast lumps have nothing to do with cancer.

Your anxiety might ramp up a bit if your doctor recommends a biopsy. But the National Breast Cancer Foundation says that about 80 percent of women who get a breast biopsy receive a negative result, meaning the lump is noncancerous.

Read on to learn some signs that a lump might be cancerous, what else it could be, and when to worry about a breast lump.

One 2017 study showed that a breast lump is the most common symptom of breast cancer in women. There are a few characteristics that indicate a lump may be cancerous. It’s hard to tell just by looking or touching, but this is what a breast lump typically feels like:

  • hard
  • irregularly shaped
  • fixed to tissue and can’t easily be moved with your fingers
  • painless

A cancerous lump doesn’t shrink and is likely to continue growing. Breast cancer can start in any part of your breast, armpit, or all the way up to your collarbone. But another 2017 study showed that the most frequent site for a primary breast tumor is the upper outer quadrant. That’s the part of your breast that’s closest to your armpit.

If you have a lump that fits this description, it should be examined by a doctor as quickly as possible.

Other indications that it might be cancer

You know that a lump may be a sign of breast cancer. But some types, like inflammatory breast cancer, don’t usually cause a lump. So, it’s worth knowing other signs and symptoms of breast cancer, such as:

  • swelling around your breast, armpit, or collarbone
  • dimpling of your skin, which can resemble an orange peel
  • red or discolored, dry, flaky, or thickening skin on your breast or nipple
  • unusual nipple discharge, especially blood
  • the nipple is turning inward
  • any change in size or shape of a breast
  • pain

If cancer has advanced beyond your breast, symptoms may include:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • shortness of breath
  • bone pain

Symptoms in men are very much the same. Of course, having one or more symptoms doesn’t mean you have breast cancer, but the only way to know for certain is to call a doctor as quickly as possible.

Breast cancer is most common in people who:

  • are female
  • experience the natural aging process: the chance of breast cancer increases with age, especially after 50
  • have a personal or family history of breast cancer
  • inherit certain genetic mutations
  • have their first period before 12 years old or menopause after 55 years old
  • experience physical inactivity
  • have overweight or obesity
  • take hormonal contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • consume alcohol

It’s important to note that the stress of enduring racism, discrimination, and other racist systems may play a part in developing the disease beyond genetic factors.

What to do if you feel a lump

Delayed diagnosis and treatment can allow breast cancer to spread, making it harder to treat. One way to ease worry is by taking action. Here’s what to do if you feel a lump in your breast:

  • Take a deep breath. Remember, most breast lumps are not related to cancer.
  • Call a doctor or health clinic. Explain that you have a breast lump and need a consultation. Until your visit, check the lump every day to see if it’s changing.
  • During your visit, discuss all your concerns and risk factors for breast cancer.
  • Be mentally prepared for your doctor to order a mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI of your breast. A clinical exam may not be enough to reach a diagnosis. This doesn’t mean you have cancer. It’s just a way to get a more detailed look.
  • Take things one step at a time. A biopsy is done to diagnose or rule out cancer. Again, it’s more likely to be benign than malignant.
  • Follow up on test results and ask questions if you don’t understand.
  • Seek out a second opinion if you don’t think your concerns were fully addressed.
  • Pat yourself on the back because by being proactive, you’re taking charge of your physical and mental health.
Was this helpful?

Noncancerous lumps are more likely to have these features:

  • smooth edges
  • soft, rubbery
  • easy to move with the pads of your fingers
  • tender or painful
  • changing with your menstrual cycle
  • shrinking over time

If this describes your lump, it should ease your worry about breast cancer. But it’s worth noting that there are always exceptions. A troubling lump should be examined by a doctor. Even if it’s not cancerous, you may need treatment for another health concern.

There are many things that can cause a lump in your breast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the two most common are fibrocystic breast disease and cysts.

Fibrocystic breast disease is common among premenopausal women. It can cause fibrous lumps and cysts. These lumps may increase in size and tenderness before your period and decrease after.

Breast cysts are fluid-filled sacs that are typically smooth and round. They may or may not feel tender. A milk retention cyst is called a galactocele.

Other benign breast lumps include:

  • Fibroadenomas. They’re solid lumps of glandular and fibrous tissue. They’re firm, rubbery, and easily moveable.
  • Papillomas. These are wartlike lumps near your nipple.
  • Abscess. It’s a collection of pus. It may be tender to the touch.
  • Hematoma. It presents as large bruising due to trauma to your breast. It may feel tender.
  • Fat necrosis. It presents as dead tissue caused by trauma of your breast. It’s usually painless.
  • Gynecomastia. It’s abnormal breast tissue enlargement in males.
  • Adenosis. It’s a condition of your milk-producing glands. It may affect women who have a lot of fibrous tissue or cysts in their breasts.

If you’re worried about a lump in your breast, you’re not alone. Finding a breast lump can be scary because it’s a common sign of breast cancer. But breast lumps can happen for many reasons, and most don’t involve cancer.

Breast cancer lumps are more likely to be immovable and hard, with irregular borders. Noncancerous lumps tend to be softer, smoother, and easy to move. But these are generalizations, and it’s difficult to tell the difference on your own. A clinical exam should help ease your worry.

Some benign conditions that cause breast lumps can be treated. And breast cancer is easier to treat in the early stages.

You can also take steps to lessen future worry. By performing breast self-exams, you may notice changes early on. It’s also a good idea to speak with your doctor about your breast cancer risk factors and screening recommendations.