What Is A Breast Lump?
A breast lump is a mass, growth, or swelling within the breast tissue. While finding a lump in your breast can be concerning, it is important to remember that the majority of breast lumps are not breast cancer. There are many conditions that may cause benign (non-cancerous) breast lumps. However, all breast lumps should be investigated by a healthcare professional.
While breast lumps should be checked and monitored by a healthcare professional, it is important to note that the absence of a noticeable breast lump does not mean breast cancer cannot or has not developed. Beginning at age 40, all women should receive an annual mammogram, and women over the age of 18 should perform a monthly breast self-exam.
What Does a Breast Lump Feel Like?
A breast lump often feels like a solid or thick spot in or around the breast tissue, or in the underarm area. A breast lump will be noticeably more solid than the surrounding breast tissue.
Breast lumps can vary in size, shape, and feel. Some may be the size of a pea, while others may be larger than a golf ball. Breast lumps may feel round, smooth, and moveable, or may be hard, jagged, and stationary. Breast lumps may be present in one or both breasts.
Some breast lumps may cause pain or discomfort, but many do not. A painful breast lump is not necessarily a sign of breast cancer, but should be looked at by a healthcare professional.
Facts About Breast Lumps
Breast lumps are common, and not all breast lumps are cancerous. According to the National Institute of Health, 60-80% of all breast lumps are non-cancerous. Non-cancerous breast lumps are referred to as “benign”; cancerous breast lumps, or tumors, are referred to as “malignant.”
Breast lumps can form anywhere within breast tissue. Breast tissue extends throughout the breasts and up through the underarm area of both arms, as well as under the breasts toward the rib cage. Men have breast tissue in these areas as well, and can also develop breast lumps. Breast lumps can affect anyone with breast tissue, at any age, from puberty through older age.
Types of Breast Lumps
There are many types of breast lumps, which may be benign or malignant. While benign breast lumps are more common than malignant lumps, it is important that a healthcare professional investigate all breast lumps if and when you notice one.
Benign Breast Lumps
Benign breast lumps are growths or masses in the breast tissue that are not cancerous. There are many types and causes of benign breast lumps.
Fibroadenomas are the most common type of benign breast lumps that occur primarily in women in their 20s and 30s, but can occur at any age. Fibroadenomas may feel rubbery to the touch and move around freely. They are usually painless, vary in size, and can form anywhere in the breast tissue.
Treatment is usually not required unless the fibroadenoma causes pain or discomfort. In that case, your doctor may recommend it be surgically removed.
Fibrocystic breasts occur in women with dense breast tissue and refers to changes in the breasts that naturally occur due to hormonal fluctuations during a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. These changes may lead to the breasts feeling lumpy, swollen, and sore right before a woman’s period.
These hormone-related changes should resolve after the cycle. However, if a new breast lump does not go away after a menstrual cycle, it should be checked by a healthcare professional.
A breast cyst is a fluid-filled sac that grows within the breast tissue. A breast cyst that forms on the surface of the breast may feel like a grape and be soft in texture. A cyst that forms deeper within the breast may feel like a hardened lump because it is covered by tissue.
Breast cysts are most common in premenopausal women ages 35 to 50. A breast cyst may be diagnosed through ultrasound, and treatment is generally not required unless the cyst causes pain or discomfort. In that case, a healthcare professional may recommend draining the cyst with a needle and syringe.
A fat necrosis is a non-cancerous breast lump that may form if the breast has been injured. Breast injury may include a biopsy or surgery. This type of lump forms in the fatty breast tissue of the injured area.
A fat necrosis in the breast can be diagnosed through an ultrasound and does not usually require treatment. In most cases, the body will break the necrosis down over time. But you should see your healthcare provider if the fat necrosis gets bigger or you notice other breast changes.
Lipomas are slow-growing, fatty lumps that form just under the surface of the skin. Some may weigh only a few grams while others can be large enough to produce a visible bulge. Lipomas are soft to the touch and move around freely when touched. Lipomas can be diagnosed through a physical exam, x-ray, mammogram, or ultrasound. They do not usually require treatment, but can be surgically removed if they cause discomfort or your doctor feels it is necessary.
Mastitis is inflammation within the breast tissue caused by an infection. Mastitis causes breast pain, swelling, and redness of the skin. Although mastitis doesn’t present as a true breast lump, symptoms like swelling can often be mistaken for a lump. Mastitis can also cause fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms.
Mastitis usually occurs in women who are breastfeeding, but it can also affect women who are not breastfeeding, as well as men. Mastitis is diagnosed through physical examination and is usually treated with antibiotics.
A breast abscess is a fluid collection or pus pocket in the breast. It is most often caused by untreated mastitis. A breast abscess can be very painful and presents as a red, swollen lump in the breast. Pus may drain out of the lump if there is an opening in the skin. Other symptoms include fever and chills.
Abscesses are typically diagnosed through ultrasound and treatment often requires a surgical procedure to drain the fluid, as well as antibiotics.
A milk cyst, or galactocele, is a fluid-filled sac that almost exclusively occurs in lactating women. A milk cyst is filled with breastmilk and causes a blockage of the mammary duct.
Milk cysts often resolve on their own once hormones from pregnancy and lactation normalize. However, a milk cyst may be drained by a medical professional if it is painful or uncomfortable.
An intraductal papilloma is a wart-like lump that may develop in the milk ducts of the breasts. Intraductal papillomas, most common in women over 40, often form close to the nipple, but can occur elsewhere in the breast as well.
An intraductal papilloma may feel like a small lump and can cause a clear or blood-stained discharge from the nipple. It is diagnosed through clinical exam, ultrasound or mammogram, and sometimes biopsy. Intraductal papillomas are often removed through surgery.
Breast Cancer Lumps
Breast lumps that are cancerous are often referred to as “malignant tumors.” A malignant tumor is a mass of abnormal tissue that contains cancerous cells.
They can range in size and texture, may or may not be painful, and may or may not be felt through the skin. All breast lumps, no matter the size or texture, should be checked by a healthcare professional.
What Do Breast Cancer Lumps Feel Like?
As with benign breast lumps, breast cancer lumps vary in size, shape, and feel. Some may be soft and movable, though it is more common for a breast cancer lump to be hard and stationary to the touch. It may also feel more jagged than smooth.
Although breast lumps are common and many are non-cancerous, there are several breast lump warning signs to be aware of. See your healthcare professional if you notice:
- A new lump, thickening, or swelling of the breast tissue not previously noticed by you or your doctor
- A lump that feels hard to the touch or different from the rest of the breast tissue
- A known lump that begins to grow or change
- A lump that does not go away after menstruation
- A lump that causes pain or discomfort
Can You Have Breast Cancer Without a Lump?
While some breast cancers may produce a noticeable lump or other symptoms, it is important to remember that in its early stages, breast cancer does not produce any noticeable symptoms or signs. This is why practicing early detection methods, such as receiving annual mammograms, annual well-woman visits that include clinical exams, and monthly breast self-exams are critical to diagnosing breast cancer early, when it is most treatable.
Learn more about Breast Cancer Symptoms and Signs.
Need help paying for a mammogram? Learn how our National Mammography Program can help you get the services you need.
Male Breast Lump
Although breast cancer primarily affects women, men also have breast tissue that can develop breast cancer. Male breast cancer is rare and makes up less than 1% of all breast cancer diagnoses.
While rare, men carry a higher breast cancer mortality rate than women due to delayed diagnosis and treatment.
It is not clear what causes male breast cancer, but risk factors include:
- Older age, with male breast cancer usually diagnosed in men in their 60s
- Exposure to estrogen-related drugs, such as those used to treat prostate cancer
- Family history of breast cancer, whether male or female
- Liver disease, such as cirrhosis
- Obesity, which causes higher levels of estrogen in the body
- Testicle disease or surgery
- Klienfelter’s syndrome
Male breast cancer is usually self-detected as a hard lump underneath the nipple and areola. As in women, the lump may or may not be painful. Men should see a healthcare professional immediately if they notice a lump anywhere within the breast tissue of either breast or underarm area.
How to Check for Breast Lumps
What do normal breasts feel like?
Normal breast tissue consists of differing textures and feels, including fat, glands, and connective tissue. Some women’s breasts may be more textured, or dense, than others. The feel of your breasts may also change based on your monthly menstrual cycle.
Every woman will have a unique “normal” feel to their breasts. It is important for all women to be breast self-aware and know what normal feels like for them. This will help you easily and quickly identify any breast changes. The best way to become familiar with your normal breast feel is to perform a monthly breast self-exam.
When to See a Doctor
As a general rule, any new breast lump or breast change should be checked by a healthcare professional. Please schedule an appointment with your provider if you notice anything different or a change in your breasts, including but not limited to:
- The discovery of a new breast lump, whether painful or not painful
- A lump that doesn’t go away after menstruation
- A lump that changes in size or shape
- Breast skin that is red or beings to pucker like an orange peel
- A new inverted nipple
- Discharge from the nipple, particularly if bloody
All women over the age of 40 should receive an annual mammogram. A mammogram is an x-ray that allows a qualified specialist to examine the breast tissue for any suspicious areas.
Mammograms are the best way to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages, when it is easiest to treat.
For tips on how to schedule a mammogram, including information on financial assistance, read How to Schedule a Mammogram.
All adult women should have a physical exam that includes a clinical breast exam and pelvic exam every year. This physical exam will help ensure that there are no unusual findings that need to be investigated further. However, if any unusual symptoms or changes in your breasts occur before your scheduled visit, do not hesitate to contact your doctor.
Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform a monthly breast self-exam to look for any changes in the breast tissue, including a lump or other abnormalities, such as changes in the breast skin. Read more about breast self-exam here.
What Kind of Doctor Should I See?
If you are experiencing a breast lump or a change in your breast tissue, you may begin with seeing your primary care physician or OB/GYN. That doctor will perform a clinical breast exam, and may then refer you to a breast specialist or mammogram facility, depending on their findings. If you are not satisfied with the recommendation of a healthcare professional, we encourage you to seek a second opinion if necessary.
Medically reviewed June 2023