Most breast lumps aren't cancerous but see your GP if you find a lump in your breast, or have symptoms including:
- a change in the size, shape or feel of your breasts (after you have gone through puberty)
- dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin on your breast
- lumpiness or thickening of an area of your breast
- a change in your nipple, such as its shape or if it turns inwards to your breast (becomes inverted)
- a rash around your nipple area
- discharge from one or both nipples
- swelling or a lump in your armpit
- pain that doesn’t go away in one part of your breast or armpit
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. It’s possible that your GP will ask you to come back for another appointment after a couple of weeks – this is because some lumps go away as your menstrual cycle progresses.
If you have a breast lump, you will usually need to have further tests. Your GP may refer you to a doctor at a hospital or specialist breast clinic to have these. The tests you need will depend on your symptoms and age. Commonly used tests are listed below.
- Mammogram – this is an X-ray of your breast.
- Ultrasound – this uses sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breast.
- Fine needle aspiration or core biopsy – your doctor will use a needle to take a sample of cells from your breast, which is then sent to a laboratory to be tested.
You won't usually need treatment for the many types of benign breast lump unless the lump is causing symptoms. These lumps include small fibroadenomas, hyperplasias or lipomas. Fat necrosis lumps tend to disappear without treatment. Please have a look at the information in the Causes section for a description of these lumps.
You may need treatment for other types of benign breast lump.
If you have a cyst, it can be drained (aspirated) with a needle and you won't usually need further treatment.
Larger breast lumps are usually removed to prevent them getting any bigger. Lumps called Phyllodes tumours are also usually removed.
If you have an abscess or other infection, your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics for you. You may need to have your abscess drained through a needle or a small incision (cut).
Talk to your doctor for advice about which treatment is most suitable for you.
Benign (non cancerous) lumps in your breast can occur for a number of different reasons, some of which are explained here.
- Fibroadenoma – this is when the tissue and ducts around a milk-producing lobe grow over it and thicken. Fibroadenomas are very common, particularly in teenagers and young women.
- Hyperplasia – this is excessive growth in either the cells in the lobes of your breast or in the cells lining the ducts. Hyperplasia is usually mild, which means that the cells are very similar to healthy ones.
- Some lumps are caused by a type of hyperplasia in which the cells are abnormal – this is called atypical hyperplasia. This can slightly increase your risk of developing breast cancer so you may be advised to have the abnormal tissue removed and have regular follow-up appointments and screening.
- Phyllodes tumour – this is a rare type of growth in your breast that usually develops in women aged between 40 and 50. These tumours might be benign or malignant (cancerous) and so they are usually removed.
- Lipoma – this is a fatty lump. Lipomas feel soft and smooth and tend to grow just under the surface of your skin.
- Abscess – this is a collection of pus and infected tissue. Abscesses are often caused by an infection called mastitis that can develop in women who are breastfeeding, although there are other causes.
- Periductal mastitis – this is a condition in which there is inflammation and infection in the ducts around your nipple. You may be more at risk of this if you smoke.
- Fat necrosis – these are firm lumps that occur mostly in people with large breasts. They are often the result of a bruise or injury to your breast.
Finding a lump in your breast is a worrying thing. But most of these types of breast lump never develop into cancer. Phyllodes tumours and atypical hyperplasia are the two that can turn into cancer and so your doctor will monitor you closely. And they may advise you to have the lump removed and have regular screening afterwards.
If you're pregnant
If you're pregnant, one of the first changes you may notice is that your breasts feel different. This is caused by an increase in progesterone (one of the female hormones) and growth of your milk ducts. It’s possible that your breasts will feel sore or tender, and they may increase in size. Sometimes, benign breast lumps can develop or enlarge during pregnancy. Lumps which do are usually:
- a cyst
- a fibroadenoma
- a milk-filled cyst (galactocoele)
Can men get a benign breast lump?
Yes, it’s possible for men to develop a benign (non-cancerous) lump in their breast tissue. Men and women have breast tissue that develops in the same way until puberty.
Gynaecomastia is a condition in men where the breast tissue grows and a lump may be felt in the breast tissue behind the nipple. It’s common at the start of puberty because of changes in hormone levels. It can also occur in older men due to changes in hormone levels later in life. Gynaecomastia can be caused by certain medicines and illnesses.
If you're a man and you notice a change in the look or feel in the area around your breast tissue, don’t delay making an appointment with your GP. He or she may be able to tell you if you have gynaecomastia and advise you about further tests or treatment.
The tests that you will need depend on the type of breast lump you have. You may have an ultrasound scan – this uses sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breast. If a distinct lump is found, you may be referred for a needle core biopsy – your breast surgeon will use a needle to take a sample of cells from your breast tissue. Your sample will be sent to a laboratory to be tested to determine the type of cells and whether these are benign or malignant (cancerous).
Gynaecomastia can be a symptom of other conditions, so your doctor may also want to examine your testicles, neck and abdomen (tummy). He or she may also ask you to have further tests to find out more about what is causing gynaecomastia.
You probably won’t need any treatment for gynaecomastia but your doctor may prescribe you medicines to reduce tenderness and swelling. You can have surgery for gynaecomastia but your doctor may only advise this if medicines haven’t worked or it’s having a serious impact on your life.
I've just reached the menopause. Will my breasts change because of this?
When you reach the menopause, you may notice that any lumps and/or pain that you used to have reduce or go away. But we’re all different so you may find that your breasts feel lumpier than they did before the menopause.
Menopause is the time when your periods stop for good; it's a natural stage in life for women. The average age at which women reach the menopause is 52.
As you get older, you may notice changes in the way your breasts feel. Changes in your hormone levels can mean your breasts feel less dense, softer and less firm, and they may begin to droop. Common changes to your breasts as you get older are described here.
- Intraductal papilloma is when a growth like a wart develops in one (or more) of the ducts that carry milk to your nipple. You may need to have surgery to remove it. Intraductal papillomas tend to develop in women aged over 40 and are usually benign. Occasionally, the growth may contain abnormal cells and may need to be removed.
- Duct ectasia is when a duct beneath your nipple becomes swollen and clogged. As you get older the ducts in your breasts shorten and widen and this can lead to a secretion building up in the duct. This can cause painful irritation and you may get discharge from your nipple. You may also be able to feel a lump behind your nipple. The condition is benign and usually goes away without treatment, but sometimes you may need surgery to remove the swollen duct.
What are calcium lumps – are they cancerous?
You might have heard about calcium lumps or breast calcifications and wonder what they are. These are very small so you won’t be able to see or feel them. Most of the time they are identified by chance on a routine mammogram.
Breast calcifications are usually benign but they can sometimes be an early sign of breast cancer. A radiologist will study the results of your mammogram. This is a doctor who specialises in using imaging methods to diagnose medical conditions. He or she will look at the size and shape and pattern of the spots to see if they are benign. If the results show the spots are benign, then you won’t need any treatment. Calcifications don’t cause you any pain.
If your doctor can’t be sure the calcifications are harmless, they may refer you for further tests.
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