Sometimes, a lump in the breast is a symptom of breast cancer. These lumps typically feel hard and uneven and are painless. However, not all breast lumps indicate cancer.

Other warning signs of breast cancer a person should look out for are nipple discharge, dimpling skin, and breast swelling or thickening.

Read on to learn more about different types of breast lumps and when they are a symptom of breast cancer.

A note about sex and gender

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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Nobody’s breasts are the same, and how they look and feel may change throughout the menstrual cycle.

Many conditions and medications could cause lumps in the breast. These include:

However, if a person is concerned about a lump, it is important to speak with a doctor who can perform a physical examination.

According to a 2022 article, a cancerous breast lump is painless, hard, and has uneven edges. It may also attach itself to underlying tissue such as the chest wall. This means it will not move when someone prods it.

When a person sees or feels a change in their breast, be it a new lump or skin dimpling, they should consult a doctor who will physically examine the breast. A doctor will usually request a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound to better evaluate the mass.

Other symptoms of breast cancer

Other changes in the breast people should look out for include:

  • nipple discharge, which may be clear or tea-colored
  • nipple texture and color changes
  • changes in the breast, including color changes and itchy, flaky, or dimpled skin

Although breast cancer is rare in males, these symptoms also apply to them.

Cancerous breast lumps do not have a set size. Some could be the size of a pea, while others could be larger. Any lump, no matter how big or small, could cause cancer.

That said, the longer a cancerous lump grows, the greater the risk of cancer spreading to other parts of the body. This is why it is important that people speak with a doctor as soon as they notice a lump of any size in their breast.

Benign breast lumps are noncancerous, and it is typical for people to have them at some point. Cysts and fibroadenomas are examples of benign breast lumps.

According to Breastcancer.org, symptoms of benign breast lumps include:

  • general breast pain
  • nipple pain
  • yellow or green discharge from the nipple

However, some types of breast cancer also present with these symptoms, so it is important that a person speaks with a doctor as soon as they notice any changes in their breast.

There is a clear distinction between benign breast masses that do not increase the risk of breast cancer, such as fibroadenomas and cysts, and high risk lesions that do. High risk lesions, such as atypical ductal hyperplasia, atypical lobular hyperplasia, and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), may increase the risk of breast cancer.

In addition, some benign breast conditions can increase the risk of a person developing breast cancer later in life. In these cases, a doctor will create a treatment plan and monitor the breast for any changes.

Cysts are benign lumps that are common in females over 35 years old. Unlike cancerous lumps, cysts may enlarge and feel sore during the days before menstruation. Blocked breast glands can cause cysts.

When a person is examining their breast, the lump may feel soft or hard. At the skin surface, a person may think the lump feels like a large blister. If the cyst is deeper in the breast, it may feel hard due to the tissue covering it.

Cysts can go away on their own, but in some cases, a doctor may drain the fluid.

Fibroadenomas are small lumps that feel solid, smooth, and round. They are most common in females 20 to 30 years old.

Unlike cancerous lumps, fibroadenomas do not present with nipple discharge and swelling. A person may feel they can move the lump around and that it has a rubbery texture.

Complex fibroadenoma may increase the risk of developing breast cancer, particularly in females where breast cancer runs in the family.

In most cases, a person will not need any treatment or follow-up if they have a fibroadenoma. Most fibroadenomas stay the same size, but some get smaller and some eventually disappear over time. A doctor may remove it if it grows bigger.

If a person notices their breast is lumpy, tender, and warm while nursing, they likely have mastitis.

Mastitis is an infection that develops from a blocked milk duct. A doctor will treat the infection with antibiotics. To prevent mastitis from recurring, a person may need to try different nursing techniques.

If more lumps develop in the breast after taking antibiotics, a person should speak with their doctor again. While only 3% of females develop breast cancer while nursing, it is important to watch closely for any changes in the breast at this time.

Learn more here about breast cancer while breastfeeding.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, people should conduct breast self-exams at least once a month. The best time for females to do this is immediately after the end of a menstrual period.

A person can check their breasts using the following steps:

  1. With the pads of the three middle fingers, press down with light, medium, and firm pressure on the entire breast and armpit area. Check for any lumps or thickened knots and areas.
  2. Visually inspect the breasts with the arms at the sides and then with the arms raised. Look for changes in breast shape and skin texture.
  3. Lower the arms and rest the palms on the hips. Press down firmly to cause the chest muscles to flex. Look for dimpling, puckering, or any other changes, particularly on one side.
  4. Lie down and place a pillow under the right shoulder and the right arm behind the head. Using the left hand, use the pads of the fingers to press around the breast and armpit area. Again, check for lumps using light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple to check for discharge. Repeat this step on the left breast.

How to perform a male self-exam

A person can carry out the following steps:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror with the arms at the hips. Tighten the chest muscles and check for any changes, including dimpling, swelling, or inverted nipples.
  2. Raise the arms above the head and continue looking for breast changes.
  3. Using the fingertip, move around the breast and armpit area in a circular motion to check for lumps.
  4. Check the nipple for any discharge.
  5. Complete this check for both sides.

Breast self-exams should not be a substitute for getting regular mammograms to screen for breast cancer. The United States Preventive Services Task Force suggests that females 40 to 74 years old get a mammogram every 2 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides breast cancer screening services to people with a low income, as well as those who are underinsured or have no insurance.

A person may be eligible for free or low-cost screenings if they:

  • have no insurance or if their insurance does not cover breast cancer screening
  • have a yearly income that is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level
  • are between 40 and 64 years old

For males

As breast cancer is rare in males, there is little benefit in screening regularly for breast cancer. Additionally, a mammography is typically only necessary if a lump is present. However, bloody nipple discharge can also be a symptom of breast cancer in males and should prompt immediate medical attention.

Those with a family history of breast cancer can request genetic testing and counseling. These tests can help discover whether a person has a particular gene that increases the risk of developing breast cancer, such as the BRCA gene mutation.

A person should speak with a doctor as soon as they feel a lump in their breast.

It is impossible to tell whether a lump is cancerous or benign from self-examination alone.

Other symptoms a person should look out for include:

  • nipple discharge
  • breast skin dimpling that resembles orange peel
  • changes in nipple and breast color

If a doctor is unsure of the cause of the lump, they will generally request an ultrasound or mammogram to obtain more information.

What does a cancerous breast lump feel like?

A cancerous breast lump often has the following characteristics:

  • Hard: It typically feels solid and firm to the touch.
  • Irregular edges: The lump often has uneven or jagged edges, though some can be rounded.
  • Painless: Most cancerous lumps do not cause pain, though this is not always the case.
  • Fixed: It may feel anchored to the tissue in the breast and not move easily when pushed.
  • Persistent: The lump does not go away over time and may gradually grow.

If a person finds a lump with these characteristics, it is important to consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation.

What are the 5 warning signs of breast cancer?

The five common warning signs of breast cancer are:

  1. A new lump: A hard, painless lump in the breast or underarm.
  2. Changes in size or shape of the breast: Noticeable changes in size or shape of the breast.
  3. Skin changes: Discoloration, dimpling, or puckering of the breast skin.
  4. Nipple changes: Inverted nipple, discoloration, scaliness, or unusual discharge.
  5. Breast pain: Persistent pain in the breast or nipple area.

People should consult a healthcare professional for evaluation as soon as they notice any of these signs.

What are the odds of a breast lump being cancerous?

Breast lumps are a common concern for many women. Over 25% of women will experience some form of breast issue in their lifetime, and most of these issues involve finding a new lump in the breast.

However, most of these lumps are not cancerous. Roughly 10% of new breast lumps turn out to be breast cancer.

A lump in the breast can be benign or malignant. Breast consistency can change with menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, or weight gain.

If a person has breast cancer, they may notice other symptoms, such as other lumps near the armpit or discharge from the nipple.

A person should always speak with a doctor if they find a lump in their breast, no matter how small the lump is. If the lump is cancerous and grows bigger, the cancer cells could break off and spread to other areas of the body.

Noncancerous lumps are benign and include cysts and fibroadenomas. Cysts may enlarge and cause pain just before a person’s period starts. Fibroadenomas feel solid and move when someone pokes them.