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Benign breast lumps

Key points

  • Many women get breast lumps and nine out of 10 are benign (not cancerous).
  • Breast lumps can be caused by many different things, for example cysts or overgrowth of healthy cells.
  • You may notice that your breasts feel lumpier at certain times in your menstrual cycle, such as just before or during your period.

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

About your breasts

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. 

Illustration showing the structures of the breast

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.

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
     

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.

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 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

 

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

Find out more about our health editors

 

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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