Many women who discover a lump in their breast confide in a friend or family member before talking to their doctor. They may be told that if a breast lump hurts or is sore, it probably isn’t cancer. To find out whether this urban legend holds any truth, we checked with Beth Overmoyer, MD, FACP, of the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers.
If a lump in the breast does not feel sore or tender, does that mean it isn’t cancer?
Dr. Overmoyer: Between 2 and 7 percent of patients with a painful lump in their breast will be diagnosed with breast cancer. A lump is usually hard or firm compared with surrounding breast tissue. The presence of pain should not be reassuring – anyone who notices a new lump in her (or his) breast should contact a doctor. It’s unclear why some breast cancers are painful and others aren’t, but pain is not an indication of cancer being more or less aggressive. The most likely reason is that the cancer is irritating the nerves within the breast, but the true cause isn’t known.
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If you can move the lump around, does that mean it isn’t cancer?
Dr. Overmoyer: Early detected breast cancer is often “mobile,” meaning that it can be moved within the breast tissue. This is actually a good sign, because cancerous lumps that are “fixed” to the skin of the breast or the chest wall are often associated with a more advanced cancer that has involved other parts of the breast, not just the fatty tissue. Mobile breast lumps have a greater chance of being surgically removed, and you should bring them to your doctor’s attention immediately.
How often should I perform a self-exam?
Dr. Overmoyer: Dana-Farber does not recommend relying solely on self-exams to find early-stage cancer. Your doctor should perform breast exams at your annual physical. It’s important to discuss your risk for breast cancer with your doctor and make a plan for prevention – and mammograms – together.