Breast Lump: If It’s Not Painful, Is It Not Cancer?

January 5, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Beth Overmoyer, MD

Many people who discover a breast lump 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 Dana-Farber’s 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?

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.

Does breast cancer hurt?

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.

If you can move the lump around, does that mean it isn’t cancer?

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?

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.

When to worry about a breast lump

The best way to truly solve any anxiety or worry you have about a breast lump is to have the lump examined by a medical professional. They will be able to determine the cause. Remember that the majority of breast lumps end up being benign, but it is still very important to have a professional give you a definitive answer.

For more information about breast cancer research and treatment, visit Dana-Farber’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers website.

About the Medical Reviewer

Beth Overmoyer, MD

Dr. Overmoyer launched the Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) Program at DF/BWCC in 2009, where she continues to serve as the principal investigator of many IBC research programs and clinical trials. She began her oncology career in 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania, where she trained in breast cancer and also participated in a major study in inflammatory breast cancer. She went on to develop the breast cancer program at the Cleveland Clinic and later developed two National Cancer Institute-sponsored studies on angiogenesis inhibitors and inflammatory breast cancer.