January 9, 2023/Cancer Care & Prevention

When Should I Be Concerned About a Lump in My Breast?

Any mass or abnormal area that you feel for more than three days should be checked out

Woman performing breast exam on herself.

If you find a lump in your breast, what should you do?

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Healthcare providers view a new breast lump, or a “breast mass” as abnormal, so the best thing to do is get it checked out.

“I always tell my patients, ‘If you feel a mass or abnormal area in your breast that is consistent for more than three days, you should get the mass checked.’ This should also include getting updated breast imaging,” says surgical breast oncologist, Stephanie Valente, DO. “You don’t want to put something off if it actually is something abnormal. So, anything that you didn’t feel there before needs to be checked out.”

What can cause a breast lump?

When you feel a lump in your breast, it’s easy to let your mind go to the worst-case scenario — cancer. But in most cases, breast lumps are benign, or noncancerous. They can be the result of changes in breast tissue fibers. Some breast lumps are cysts or fluid-filled sacs in the breast. They’re common for women in their 30s and 40s but can form at any age — especially before periods.

According to the American Cancer Society, breast lumps or cysts don’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop breast cancer down the road.

Men and people assigned male at birth can experience breast lumps (and breast cancer) as well. The breast can become enlarged and sometimes tender due to a condition known as gynecomastia. These lumps might be caused by a hormonal imbalance or a side effect of medication.

And a lump could even mean that you have a clogged milk duct. You don’t have to be breastfeeding (or chestfeeding) to experience this condition and it can happen to all people. It’s known as mastitis and is caused by breast implants, an autoimmune disease, eczema, nipple piercing or tobacco use.

Although most lumps aren’t cancer, you can’t determine if a lump is something to be worried about just by feeling it. Any new lump, in all sexes, needs a mammogram or ultrasound to see what it looks like on the inside.

What do breast lumps feel like?

Breast lumps can feel pretty firm or hard and they don’t have a specific shape. They might be attached to the breast tissue or they could move around slightly. Breast lumps can be as small as a pea or much larger. And if you have a lump known as a “fibroadenoma,” this noncancerous type of breast lump tends to be smooth and rubbery.

Noncancerous breast lumps might be:

  • Rubbery.
  • Soft.
  • Moveable when you touch/rub them.
  • Smooth around the edges.

They can also get smaller as time passes.

How do you know if a breast lump is cancerous?

With breast cancer, not everyone will experience symptoms. If you do experience them, they could be much different from someone else’s. With that being said, some of the warning signs of breast cancer include:

  • Changes in the size or shape of your breast.
  • Pain or a pulling sensation in your nipple.
  • Fluid (other than breast milk) or blood coming out of your nipple.
  • Breast pain.
  • Thickening or swelling in part of your breast.
  • A new lump in your breast or armpit.
  • Your breast skin is dimpled or irritated.
  • Red or flaky nipples or breast skin.

When it doubt, always get it checked out

“Any changes in your skin or skin color, any lump or bump that’s different needs to be evaluated, even if you had an updated annual mammogram recently,” stresses Dr. Valente. This also includes changes in the nipple, especially if it becomes inverted or has discharge.

Typical breast lumps are:

  • Hard.
  • Not painful.
  • Oddly shaped.
  • Can be any size

So, if you notice a breast lump, contact your provider right away. They can use radiology tests to rule out cancer and the sooner this is done, the better. If it is breast cancer, treatment will be more successful if it’s started early. “It’s always better to be safe than sorry,” Dr. Valente says.

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