Although breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women, most breast lumps are not cancer. In fact, more than 80 percent of them end up being benign. But can a woman tell if a breast lump is cancer?
While the majority of lumps are benign, experts at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber say it is important for women to speak with their doctor if they notice changes to their breasts.
In general, cancerous breast lumps tend to be more irregular in shape. They may also feel firm or solid, and might be fixed to the tissue in the breast. They are also often painless. However, in a small percentage of women, a painful breast lump turns out to be cancer.
Where are breast cancer lumps usually found?
Lumps can appear anywhere within the breast. The location does not determine whether or not it is a breast cancer.
Do breast cancer lumps move?
Breast lumps typically do not “move” around the breast. However, sometimes a breast lump will be fixed, or stuck, to the chest wall. Most lumps will be movable within the breast tissue on examination.
What about a “hard lump” in the breast?
“Hard lumps” in the breast can be either benign or malignant. The feel of the lump itself is rarely enough to determine if the lump is a cancerous one or not.
Cancer tumors versus cysts and fibroadenomas
Cysts, which are fluid-filled lumps, are common in the breast and are benign. They form when fluid builds up inside breast glands, and tend to be smooth or round. Fibroadenomas, which are benign tumors made up of glandular and connective breast tissue, are usually smooth and firm or rubbery to the touch. Both of these conditions tend to affect younger women; fibroadenomas are most common in women in their 20s and 30s, and cysts are most common in women under 40.
Despite these common descriptions, it is impossible to tell by touch whether a lump is cancer.
Always seek medical attention
“The key point is that a woman should seek medical attention for any concerning lumps in her breasts,” says Harold Burstein, MD, PhD, a breast oncologist with the Susan F. Smith Center. “Simple imaging techniques such as a mammogram or breast ultrasound can usually provide reassurance that the breast lump is benign, and if necessary, a breast MRI or biopsy can be used to evaluate whether the lump is cancerous.”
About the Medical Reviewer
Dr. Burstein graduated from Harvard College before earning his MD at Harvard Medical School. He also received a PhD in cellular immunology and a master's degree in the history of science from Harvard. He trained in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital before his oncology fellowship at DFCI. In 1999, he joined the staff of DFCI and Brigham and Women's Hospital, where he is a clinician and clinical investigator in the Breast Oncology Center.