Updated: May 31, 2022
You have just come out of the shower, you are drying your skin, and then you find a breast lump. Or maybe you were doing your monthly breast exam, and you felt a lump. Your first reaction to finding a breast lump may be one of panic. Could it be cancer?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women in the United States and black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women. The CDC also states that most breast cancers are found in women 50 years and older but younger women are affected as well.1
However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute says breast lumps or breast changes are very common, and most are not always a sign of cancer.2 Several conditions may cause you to find a lump in your breast. The NIH outlines some of them below:
Breast changes during your lifetime that are not cancer
During your period – Your breasts may feel swollen, tender, or painful, and you may feel one or more lumps because of extra fluid in your breasts.
During pregnancy – Because of milk-producing glands, your breasts may feel lumpy. While breastfeeding, a milk duct may become blocked and cause a condition called mastitis. This causes the breast to feel lumpy, warm, and tender.
Some medications – Hormone therapy, birth control pills, or injections may cause your breasts to become denser.
Aging – Hormonal changes can impact your breast health, causing your breasts to feel lumpy and tender. This may stop after menopause.
Breast lumps that may not require treatment
The NIH lists several conditions that can result in lumps that are not cancerous and do not require treatment.
Adenosis – This benign condition results in small, round lumps, lumpiness, or lumps that are too small to be felt.
Cysts – Small fluid-filled sacs that can develop in both breasts. They may be painful just before the beginning of your period.
Duct ectasia – When the ducts become blocked with fluid, you may have nipple discharge, inverted nipples, and tender or red nipples. If the blocked duct becomes infected, you may feel a lump under your nipple. This condition usually goes away on its own.
Fat necrosis – This may appear after an injury, surgery, radiation therapy and may cause round, firm but painless lumps.
Fibroadenoma – This is the most common benign breast lump found in women under thirty. It feels like a hard, round lump, moves easily, and is not painful.
Fibrocystic breast changes – Also called fibrosis or fibrocystic breast disease, is another common cause of lumpy, painful breasts. Fibrosis is common among women under forty-five, and nearly half of all women may experience fibrocystic breast changes.
Breast changes of concern
As stated above, a breast lump is not always a sign of breast cancer. However, it can be cause for concern. The NIH recommends you check with your doctor if you notice any of the following changes:
A lump or firm feeling in your breast or under your arm
Nipple changes or discharge. Note the color or texture. Medications, birth control pills, or infection can cause these changes.
Skin that is itchy, red, dimpled, or puckered.
Tests that help to diagnose the cause of your breast lump
To properly diagnose the cause of your breast lump and your breast health, your doctor will order certain tests. This does not mean you have cancer or you require surgery. The CDC lists the following tests:
Breast ultrasound – this is a machine that uses sound waves, called sonograms, to take pictures of the inside of the breast.
Diagnostic mammogram – this is a more detailed x-ray of the breast to diagnose the cause of breast lumps or an abnormal screening mammogram.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – A body scan that uses a magnet linked to a computer to make detailed pictures of the inside of the breast.
Biopsy – This test removes tissue or fluid from the breast to be looked at under a microscope. There are different biopsies – fine needle aspiration, core biopsy, or open biopsy.
If you find a lump in your breast, you should not panic. The experts have told us that a breast lump is not always a sign of breast cancer, but it can be. For this reason, you should not take chances with your breast health. Check with your doctor and let him/her diagnose the cause of your breast lump.
CDC, Breast Cancer Statistics, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 2021), https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/statistics/index.htm
NIH, Breast Changes and Conditions, (National Cancer Institute: 2019), https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/breast-changes
CDC, How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 2021), https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/diagnosis.htm