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Benign breast lumps

A breast lump is a swelling or thickening in your breast. Breast lumps are common and nine out of 10 are benign (not cancerous).

Your breasts are made up of fat, connective tissue, glandular tissue (glands) and ducts. The glandular tissue is in the form of lobes that are connected to your nipple by ducts to produce and deliver milk if you have a baby.

A 'tail' of breast tissue extends into your armpit. Your armpits also contain lymph nodes – these are glands that are found throughout your body and form part of your immune system.

About benign breast lumps

There are many different types of benign breast lump. Common ones include:

  • cysts (sacs of fluid that build up in your breast tissue)
  • fibroadenomas (solid growths made up of fibrous and glandular tissue)

Sometimes normal parts of your breast can feel like a lump – this may vary throughout your menstrual cycle, with your breasts feeling lumpier just before or during your period.

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Image showing the structures of the breast

Details

  • Symptoms Symptoms of benign breast lumps

    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
       

    Bupa Health Assessment: Breast check

    If you are concerned about breast cancer, Bupa can help you get a diagnosis.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of benign breast lumps

    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.
       
  • Treatment Treatment of benign breast lumps

    You won't usually need treatment for small fibroadenomas, hyperplasias or lipomas unless they are causing symptoms. Fat necrosis lumps tend to disappear without treatment. However, 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, as are Phyllodes tumours.

    If you have an abscess or other infection, you will probably be given antibiotics. You may also need to have your abscess drained through a small incision (cut).

    Your doctor can give you advice about which treatment is most suitable for you.

    Self-help

    There isn't much reliable evidence about whether lifestyle and diet changes will increase or decrease your chance of getting a benign breast lump. However, in the long-term, you can reduce your risk of certain diseases, including some cancers, by:

    • eating a healthy, balanced diet
    • doing regular physical activity
    • not drinking alcohol excessively
    • not smoking
    • maintaining a healthy weight
    • breastfeeding if you have a baby
  • Worried about breast lumps?

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  • Causes Causes of benign breast lumps

    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 and increases your risk of breast cancer. If you’re diagnosed with this condition, you may be advised to have an operation to remove the abnormal tissue. You will probably need to have regular screening, such as mammography, afterwards to check that no further abnormal cells develop.
    • Phyllodes tumour – this is a rare type of growth in your breast that usually develops in women aged between 40 and 50. Although they are often benign, about 20 to 25 out of 100 Phyllodes tumours are malignant (cancerous), but it’s usually possible to treat these successfully.
    • Fibrocystic changes (also known as fibrocystic disease) – this refers to a number of changes in breast tissue that can lead to the development of lumps. These may be a thickening (fibrosis) of tissue or a cyst, and are very common. Your breasts may also feel painful or tender and the symptoms are often more severe just before your period. You may have only one or several lumps.
    • 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 develop when an area of fatty breast tissue becomes inflamed and its blood supply is disrupted. This may be the result of a bruise or injury to your breast. These can sometimes be difficult to diagnose but they are benign and you won’t usually need treatment.

    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, and these may include a:

    • cyst
    • fibroadenoma
    • milk-filled cyst (galactocoele)

    Breast cancer is rare during pregnancy but if you're aware of a definite, localised lump or have any symptoms that you’re concerned about, see your GP.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Are there lifestyle and diet changes that I can make to reduce my chance of getting a benign breast lump?

    Answer

    It isn’t possible to say whether making lifestyle and diet changes will increase or decrease your risk of getting a benign breast lump. However, making routine healthy choices will benefit your overall health, and make it less likely that you will develop some diseases, including certain types of cancer.

    Explanation

    Eating a diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables and exercising regularly can reduce the risk of a number of diseases, including some cancers.

    Some factors that may increase your risk of certain types of benign breast lumps are things that you can't control, such as your age and how old you are when you reach the menopause.

    Although there is no evidence to show that smoking increases your risk of getting breast lumps, some studies have shown that it may increase your risk of developing breast cancer if you started before you were 20. Smoking has been found to cause many diseases, including other types of cancer. If you smoke, try to stop. Your GP will be able to help you with this.

    If you drink too much alcohol, you may also have an increased risk of breast lumps, and it has been found to raise your risk of breast cancer. It’s also important that you’re a healthy weight – women who have been through the menopause and are overweight are at an increased risk of breast cancer.

    Breastfeeding has been found to decrease your risk of breast cancer – the longer you breastfeed, the less likely it is that you will develop breast cancer. In addition, breastfeeding provides health benefits for your child.

    Some lifestyle factors seem to increase the risk of getting a breast abscess. These include nipple piercing and smoking.

    If you would like more information on healthy changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle, speak to your GP.

    Can men get a benign breast lump?

    Answer

    Yes, it’s possible for men to develop a benign breast lump.

    Explanation

    Both men and women have breast tissue that develops in the same way until puberty. In men, an increase in the hormone testosterone during puberty stops the breast tissue from developing any further. In women, the hormone oestrogen causes the breasts to grow and develop lobes that can produce milk if she becomes pregnant.

    Gynaecomastia is a condition in men where the breast tissue grows and a lump may be felt in the breast behind the nipple. It’s common at the start of puberty because of changes in hormone levels, and also in older men because there can be 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, see your GP as soon as possible. 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 need will 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 biopsy – this is a procedure to take a small sample of tissue which is then sent to a laboratory for testing 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 you may be given medicines to reduce tenderness and swelling. You can have surgery for gynaecomastia but this is usually only advised if medicines haven’t worked or if the condition is having a serious impact on your life.

    I've just reached the menopause. Will my breasts change because of this?

    Answer

    When you reach the menopause, you may notice that any lumps and/or pain that you used to have reduce or go away. However, this isn’t always the case and you may find that your breasts feel lumpier than they did before the menopause.

    Explanation

    Menopause is the time when your periods stop for good. It's a natural part of ageing for women (the average age at which women reach the menopause is 50), and it means that you will no longer be able to have a baby.

    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 this can increase your risk of developing breast cancer.
    • 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 – this is normal but it can lead to a secretion building up in the duct, which can cause irritation. This may be painful 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.

    You may decide to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) when you reach the menopause. HRT can help to relieve some of the symptoms of the menopause, and can also help prevent osteoporosis in some women. HRT isn't suitable for all women, so it’s important to see your GP first if you're thinking of taking it.

    If you don't take HRT, your hormone levels drop and your breast tissue becomes less dense and fattier. This means that any breast changes or early breast cancer may be more noticeable. It will probably also be easier to see any changes that show up on mammography (X-ray images of your breasts).

    The NHS runs a free National Breast Screening Programme, where all women in the UK aged 50 to 70 are invited for breast screening every three years. This is being extended in some areas to include women in their late 40s up to the age of 73.

    If you're worried about your breasts or notice any changes in them, see your GP for advice.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • About breast cancer. A quick guide. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, published November 2012
    • About the breasts. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, published August 2011
    • Breast cancer. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, published December 2012
    • Breast cancer information. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, published 2011
    • Breast lumps. The Merck Manuals. www.merckmanuals.com, published November 2008
    • Non-cancerous breast conditions. American Cancer Society. www.cancer.org, published August 2012
    • Phyllodes tumour. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, published January 2013
    • Fibrocystic breast disease. University of Maryland Medical Center. www.umm.edu, published January 2011
    • Lipoma. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published June 2012
    • Mastitis and breast abscess. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. www.cks.nhs.uk, published May 2012
    • Breast changes during and after pregnancy. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, published March 2007
    • Mastitis and breast abscess. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published May 2012
    • Breast cancer in men. American Cancer Society. www.cancer.org, published September 2012
    • Gynaecomastia. Breast Cancer Care. www2.breastcancercare.org.uk, published February 2013
    • Fruit and vegetables – benefits. Better Health Channel. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au, published September 2011
    • Start active, stay active. Department of Health, 2011. www.dh.gov.uk
    • Breast cancer risk factors. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, published February 2009
    • Breast cancer prevention (PDQ®). Overview. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, published February 2013
    • Health benefits of breastfeeding. The Baby Friendly Initiative. www.unicef.org.uk, accessed 2 April 2013
    • Breast changes during your lifetime that are not cancer. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, published November 2012
    • Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. www.mhra.gov.uk, published March 2010
    • NHS breast screening. Department of Health, NHS Cancer Screening Programme. www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk, published February 2011
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Produced by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2013.

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