A breast lump is a localized swelling, protuberance, bulge, or bump in the breast that feels different from the breast tissue around it or the breast tissue in the same area of the other breast.

There are different reasons why breast lumps develop.

Causes include infection, trauma, fibroadenoma, cyst, fat necrosis, or fibrocystic breasts. Breast lumps may develop in both males and females but are more common in females. Some lumps are cancerous, but most are not.

In this article, we look at the different types of breast lumps and how they might appear.

While this can help a person understand if a lump is likely to be cancerous, people should always seek advice for an unexplained breast lump. Some noncancerous lumps need treatment, and breast cancer does not appear in the same way for everyone.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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The female breast consists of different types of tissue. The two main types are milk glands, which produce milk, and milk ducts, or tubes, for milk to pass through to reach the nipple.

The breast also contains fibrous connective tissue, fatty tissue, nerves, blood vessels, and lymph nodes.

Breast tissue composition can vary depending on the function. For example, during breastfeeding, the breasts will change. They will feel and look different. The breasts can also change throughout the monthly cycle.

Each part of the breast can react in different ways to changes in body chemistry. These changes impact the sensations and texture of the breast, affecting the development of breast lumps.

Possible causes of breast lumps include:

Some breast lumps seem to have a distinct border, while others may feel like a general area of thickened tissue. Nipple discharge can occur with some lumps.

Breast lumps can develop for many reasons, cancerous and noncancerous. The symptoms may vary depending on the cause of the lump.

Noncancerous lumps

The size, feel, and texture of breast lumps can vary considerably. The consistency may help a physician diagnose what kind of a lump it is.

Breast cysts

A breast cyst is a benign or noncancerous fluid-filled sac in the breast. They commonly affect females aged 30–50 years and are rare after menopause.

It may cause no symptoms, or a person may notice:

  • a smooth and rubbery lump under the skin
  • pain
  • nipple discharge

It is not clear what causes breast cysts, but they may develop in response to hormones related to menstruation.

Cysts can be simple or complex. In both cases, a doctor may suggest removing it by aspiration, a type of surgery.

Very rarely, a cyst with solid components that returns after aspiration is linked to underlying breast cancer.

Abscesses

Abscesses sometimes develop in the breast, especially during breastfeeding. They are noncancerous and usually result from a bacterial infection, such as mastitis.

A person may notice:

  • a lump or mass
  • pain and swelling
  • redness in nearby skin if the skin is pale, or a darkening of darker skin
  • heat in the area around the abscess
  • discharge from the nipple
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fever
  • swollen lymph glands

Treatment will usually involve:

If a breast abscess occurs when a person is not breastfeeding, a doctor may do tests to rule out breast cancer.

Fibroadenoma

A breast fibroadenoma is an unusual growth of glandular tissue in the breast.

It is a benign tumor with the following features:

  • a round, rubbery solid, lump
  • smooth borders
  • painless
  • most commonly appears in females aged 14–35 years but can occur at any age

Fibroadenomas often shrink and disappear over time. However, a person with a large fibroadenoma may wish to have it removed through surgery.

Intraductal papillomas

Intraductal papillomas are a type of benign tumor. They are wart-like growths that develop in the ducts of the breast.

They often:

  • form a round or oval mass
  • develop under the nipple
  • involve a clear or bloody discharge

A surgeon can remove an intraductal papilloma. They will likely test the tissue to rule out unusual growth that could indicate cancer, a Phyllodes tumor, or other lesions.

Fat necrosis

Fat necrosis happens when fatty tissue in the breast does not receive enough oxygen. It becomes damaged and breaks down. It can happen after breast reconstruction surgery, trauma, a biopsy, and some medical treatments.

There may be:

  • lumps due to oil cysts, which have a solid shell and fat or oil in the center
  • a change in breast shape
  • pain in some cases

Lipoma

A lipoma is a benign, fatty tumor.

It will likely be:

  • soft
  • movable
  • painless

Lipomas can occur anywhere on the body, including the breast. They do not usually need treatment.

Cancerous lumps

A breast cancer lump or tumor can appear in the breast or underarm.

Warning signs include:

  • a lump, thickening, or swelling of the breast
  • skin irritation or dimpling
  • flaky skin on the breast or around the nipple that may be red or darker than the surrounding skin
  • nipple pain
  • nipple inversion, or pulling inward of the nipple
  • discharge, which may contain blood
  • changes in the size or shape of the breast
  • pain anywhere in the breast, although there is often no pain

Some people do not notice any symptoms but following a doctor’s recommendations about screening can help identify breast cancer if it arises.

The symptoms of breast cancer can resemble those of other breast lumps. It is a good idea to seek medical advice if any breast changes occur.

What are the early warning signs of breast cancer?

The American Cancer Society does not recommend self-examination as part of the screening process for breast cancer. However, it is essential to be aware of the breasts and any changes that take place.

The infographic below shows five steps for breast self-examination.

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breast-self-exam design by Diego Sabogal

It is important to be familiar with the breasts. Knowing how the breasts normally feel can help people recognize any problematic changes or lumps.

The following guidelines will help people carry out a self-examination.

  1. Looking in a mirror, check the size, shape, and color and look for visible swellings or lumps
  2. Raise the arms and repeat step 1.
  3. Check for any discharge from the nipples that may be watery, milky, yellow, or with blood.
  4. Feel the breasts with a firm, smooth motion while lying down, including under the arms and down to the ribcage.
  5. Repeat step 4 while standing or sitting. It may be easier in the shower.

Even though most breast lumps are benign, a person should ask a doctor if they notice anything unusual.

How does a person do a breast self-exam?

If a person seeks medical advice for a breast lump, they may undergo one or more of the following tests:

What does breast cancer look like on a mammogram?

Males can also have breast lumps for similar reasons to females. In some cases, the lump may indicate male breast cancer.

However, the chance of a lump being cancerous is lower in males.

White men have a 100 times lower chance of having breast cancer than white females. For Black males, however, the chance of having breast cancer is around 70 times lower than for Black females.

Overall, the risk of any male having breast cancer during their lifetime is around 1 in 833.

Other reasons a male might have lumpy or enlarged breasts include:

  • gynecomastia, when the breast tissue enlarges due to a health condition or medication use
  • a cyst or fluid-filled lump
  • a lipoma, or fatty lump
  • adenoma, although this is less common in males than females
  • subareolar breast abscess, a rare infectious disease in males
  • adenoma, a benign tumor, also rare in males
  • breast fat necrosis, also rare in males

Here, learn about some signs of breast cancer in males.

Black people — male or female — are more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts. Why are there disparities in cancer and cancer survival rates between Black and white Americans?

Some research suggests that breast cancer is more common in trans women than in cisgender men, possibly due to the use of hormones that help the breasts develop. However, the risk appears to be lower in trans women than in cisgender women.

Trans women should become familiar with their breasts and seek medical advice if unexpected changes occur.

What are the early symptoms of breast cancer in females and males?

A person should see a doctor if they notice:

  • a lump in the breast or under the arm
  • nipple changes, such as inversion or discharge
  • puckering or dimpling in the skin

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that females ask about breast screening from 50 years or earlier if they have concerns about their risk of developing breast cancer. Some people start from the age of 40 years because they have a family history of breast cancer or feel the benefits outweigh the risks.

Other organizations may make different recommendations.

A doctor should check any unexplained breast lumps, but not all lumps will need immediate treatment.

For a cyst or a fibrous lump, a doctor may recommend monitoring the lump but not taking any further action.

If there is an abscess, the doctor may lance and drain it with a fine needle and prescribe antibiotics.

If cancer is present, treatment usually involves a combination of:

A doctor may also recommend testing for changes in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. If this genetic change is present and breast cancer has occurred, preventive surgery may help prevent a recurrence. Other family members may also wish to seek additional screening.

Here are some questions people often ask about breast lumps.

What kind of lumps are normal in breasts?

Breasts can become slightly larger just before menstruation, and they may feel lumpier. They also change during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Some types of lumps, such as cysts, are very common.

What kind of lumps should you worry about?

People should see a doctor about any new or unusual breast changes, including lumps, or any changes they are concerned about. If pain or signs of infection occur, contact a doctor at once.

What does a cancerous breast lump feel like?

It is not always possible to know if a lump is cancerous or not by feeling it. Some people do not have a lump. They experience a thickening of breast tissue or other changes, such as an inverted nipple. Always seek advice for unexplained breast changes.

Breast lumps can arise for many reasons. They can affect both males and females but are more common in females. Sometimes, a lump or other change can be a sign of cancer, although most lumps are not cancerous. Some people with breast cancer do not have a lump, but other changes may be present.

Always seek medical advice for concerns about lumps or other breast changes. Even if a lump is not cancerous, it may need treatment.

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