Finding a lump in your breast can be frightening — but 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. In a small percentage of women, a painful breast lump turns out to be cancer.
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.
What does a breast lump feel like?
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.
Breast cancer lumps can vary in size. Typically, a lump has to be about one centimeter (about the size of a large lima bean) before a person can feel it; however, it depends on where the lump arises in the breast, how big the breast is, and how deep the lesion is.
What does a tumor feel like under the skin?
Lumps, tumors and all sorts of things one can feel in the breast can feel surprisingly similar: firm, as opposed to the normal, more spongy tissue of the breast. They are often irregularly shaped as opposed to a sphere or ball shape. Lumps are also usually mobile within the breast, and can be moved around within the breast.
However, it’s important to note that this can vary from person to person. Ultimately, anytime you feel something that’s different from what your normal breast tissue feels like, or if you notice anything that generally feels unusual, you should speak to her medical team about that.
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?
Most lumps will be movable within the breast tissue on examination, but breast lumps typically do not “move” around the breast. However, sometimes a breast lump will be fixed, or stuck, to the chest wall.
What if I only feel a lump when I’m sitting?
Sometimes if the breast is positioned differently, you’ll feel different things. In general, regardless of how you are positioned, when you feel an abnormality in the breast — if it feels different or new — you should reach out to the medical team for an evaluation.
What if the lump feels like a ridge? What if I have a pea-sized lump in my breast that doesn’t move?
You should have a familiarity with your body and what the breast normally feels like, including its normal shape, appearance, and texture. Generally, women are advised to analyze their breasts in the shower with soapy fingers to get a nice feel of the normal tissues. If you do that and have some familiarity with your normal breast tissue, and then find something different, you should reach out to your medical team.
What does a hard lump in the breast mean?
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 – even during the coronavirus pandemic
“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. 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.