Breast Lumps: What’s Normal, What’s Not
So you found a lump — now what? Though all breast lumps need to be evaluated by a trained medical professional, the majority turn out to be noncancerous, especially in younger women.
First, don’t panic…
80 to 85 percent of breast lumps are benign, meaning they are noncancerous, especially in women younger than age 40. Not only that, but if you’re at an age where you’ve been having regular mammograms, and if those mammograms have been negative, odds are even better that your palpable (capable of being felt) lump is not cancer.
But how do you know? 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?
Breast Lumps Distinctions
Your breasts are made up of fat, nerves, blood vessels, fibrous connective tissue, and glandular tissue, as well as an intricate milk-producing system of lobules (where the milk is made) and ducts (the thin tubes that carry milk to the nipple). This anatomy in and of itself creates a lumpy, uneven terrain.
A breast lump, however, distinguishes itself from this background of “normal” irregularities: A breast lump can be solid and unmovable like a dried bean, or soft and fluid-filled, rolling between your fingers like a grape. It can be smaller than a pea or several inches across, although this larger size is rare.
Meanwhile, what typically differentiates a benign breast lump from a cancerous breast lump is movement. A fluid-filled lump that rolls between the fingers is less likely to be cancer than a lump that is hard and rooted to the breast.
This is not to say all benign lumps move and all cancerous lumps don’t. While this is a good rule of thumb, the only way to know for sure is through the wisdom of your doctor and specialized medical tests, such as an ultrasound, a mammogram, or a fine needle aspiration, in which your doctor uses a tiny needle to extract a bit of the lump for a biopsy, or laboratory examination. Another rule of thumb has to do with pain. Breast cancer does not usually present pain, but benign conditions often do, although there are exceptions to this as well.
Not all benign breast lumps will require additional testing, by the way. If you find what appears to be a fluid-filled cyst during your menstrual period, 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.
A Variety of Benign Breast Lumps and Conditions
Most benign breast lumps and conditions are directly related to your menstrual cycle — to fluctuations in your hormones and to the fluid buildup that comes with your monthly period. Other benign breast lumps and conditions may be related to plugged milk ducts, infections, and even breast injuries. Here are some of the most common benign breast conditions:
- Fibrocystic changes. A general lumpiness that can be described as “ropy” or “granular,” these lumps are the most commonly seen benign breast condition, affecting at least half of all women. Symptoms of fibrocystic change include tender, fibrous, rubbery tissue; a thickening of tissue; or a round…