Benign breast lumps

Expert Reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due November 2020

Breast lumps are swellings or areas of thicker tissue in your breasts. You might feel or see a lump in your breasts when you’re checking them. Or, a lump might be found if you have a mammogram as part of routine breast screening.

It’s understandable that if you find a lump in your breast, you might automatically think of cancer. And while it’s important to see your GP if you notice something unusual, breast lumps are very common and are usually benign (not cancerous). In fact, about nine out of 10 lumps that women can feel themselves in their breasts turn out not to be cancer.

Image showing the structures of the breast

About breasts and breast lumps

Breasts come in all shapes and sizes and everyone’s breasts are different. They’re mostly made up of fatty tissue and glandular tissue. The glandular tissue produces milk when you’re breastfeeding. A 'tail' of breast tissue and muscle goes up into your armpit. In your armpits there are lymph nodes – these are glands found throughout your body which are part of your immune system.

In women, breasts are affected by hormones. They change size and shape throughout your monthly cycle and when you’re pregnant. This means breasts can feel tender, heavy, and lumpy. This usually happens just before your period and goes back to normal once it starts. It’s normal for many women to feel lumpy areas in their breasts which come and go as their hormones change. But, if a lump appears and doesn’t go, see your GP for advice.

Men can get breast lumps too. See our FAQ on breast lumps in men for more information.

Types of benign breast lumps

There are many different types of benign breast lump. These include the following.

  • Fibroadenomas. These are solid growths of tissue. They’re the most common type of benign breast lump and you’re most likely to get one between the ages of 16 and 24. They don’t usually hurt and can sometimes move slightly underneath your fingers as you check your breast.
  • Cysts. These are sacs of fluid that build up in your breast tissue. You can have one or more cysts and they vary in size. You’re most likely to get them between the ages of 35 and 50 and they can come and go.
  • Phyllodes tumour. This is a type of breast lump that can be either benign or malignant (cancerous). You’re most likely to get this if you’re aged between 40 and 50. Because of the risk that they may be cancerous, your doctor will usually recommend that these lumps are removed.
  • Atypical hyperplasia. This is an over-production of cells in the ducts or the lobes of your breasts. Although it’s a benign breast lump, it’s also pre-malignant, which means it can change into breast cancer in time.
  • Fat necrosis. These are firm lumps that can form on your breast. They usually develop when scar tissue forms after an injury to your breast.
  • Sclerosing adenosis. This is usually a small, painful and firm lump. This type of lump is sometimes found on a mammogram during breast screening.
  • Breast infection (mastitis or an abscess). This can sometimes develop if you’re breastfeeding and may be painful and cause breast lumps and swelling.
  • Duct ectasia can develop around the time of the menopause. This is when the ducts under your nipples get blocked. This can cause your nipple to turn inwards and a lump to develop under it. Some women have a blood-stained discharge from their nipple too.

Symptoms of benign breast lumps

Benign breast lumps can appear anywhere in your breast. They may or may not be painful, and can be large or small. Sometimes a lump can develop alongside other symptoms too. See your GP if you develop any of the following symptoms.

  • A lump or thickening in your breast or armpit.
  • A change in the size, shape or feel of your breasts.
  • Dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin on your breast.
  • A change in the shape or position of your nipple – for instance, if it starts turning inwards towards your breast (becomes inverted).
  • A rash around your nipple area.
  • Discharge from one or both nipples.
  • Pain that doesn’t go away in one part of your breast or armpit.

Although most breast lumps are found to be benign (non-cancerous), these symptoms can sometimes be a sign of breast cancer. So it’s important to get any unusual symptoms you notice checked by a doctor.

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Diagnosis of benign breast lumps

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask you about your family history and whether a close relative has had breast cancer.

Your GP may ask you to come back for another appointment at a different time in your menstrual cycle, if they think the changes may be related to the hormone cycle. This is because lumps can come and go at certain times in your cycle.

If you have a breast lump, you will usually need to have further tests to check whether your lump is caused by cancer or something else. Your GP will refer you to a doctor at a hospital or specialist breast clinic to have these tests. What tests you need will depend on what symptoms you have and your age. You may be asked to have a:

  • mammogram – this is an X-ray of your breast
  • ultrasound – this produces an image of the inside of your breast
  • breast aspiration or biopsy – this is a sample of cells taken from the breast lump, which is then sent to a laboratory to be tested

Treatment of benign breast lumps

The treatment for benign breast lumps depends on what the lumps are. Many lumps won't need treatment unless you’re having symptoms or the lump is particularly big. Fat necrosis lumps tend to disappear on their own without treatment.

  • You may not need any treatment if you have a fibroadenoma, unless it’s very large. If the lump is bigger than 4cm across, your doctor may suggest you have it removed.
  • Sclerosing adenosis doesn’t usually need any treatment, unless you have symptoms such as pain. You may need to take painkillers or other medicines to treat your symptoms.
  • If you have a cyst, it can be drained (aspirated) with a needle. You probably won't need further treatment.
  • If you have a Phyllodes tumour, you’re likely to have an operation to remove it. This is because they can develop into cancer.
  • If you have an abscess or other infection, your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics for you. You may need to have your abscess drained using a needle or a small incision (cut).
  • Atypical hyperplasia is a benign lump that can become malignant. Once the lump is detected, your doctor may recommend having an operation to remove the breast lump. 
  • Duct ectasia doesn’t usually need treatment, unless there’s a lot of discharge from your nipple, or your nipple is turned inwards. If this happens, you may need an operation to remove the blocked duct.

Talk to your doctor for advice about which treatment is most suitable for you.

Causes of benign breast lumps

Benign (non-cancerous) lumps in your breast can develop for several different reasons.

  • Changes in hormones. Your hormone levels can affect your breasts and may cause cysts, fibroadenoma and the lumps that come and go before and during your period.
  • Injury to your breast, which can lead to fat necrosis.
  • Problems during breastfeeding, which may lead to infection (mastitis) or an abscess.

If you're pregnant

If you're pregnant, your breasts will change while your baby is developing to get ready for breastfeeding. Your breasts may get bigger and feel sore and tender. Sometimes, benign breast lumps can develop or get bigger during pregnancy:

  • cysts
  • fibroadenomas
  • milk-filled cysts called galactocoeles

Breast cancer  is rare during pregnancy. But, if a breast lump is cancer, it can grow very quickly. So, if you do notice a breast lump when you’re pregnant, it’s important to get it checked by a doctor as soon as you can.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, men can develop benign (non-cancerous) lumps in their breast tissue.

    Sometimes, men develop lumps in their breasts as part of a condition called gynaecomastia. This is when a boy or man’s breast tissue starts to grow. Gynaecomastia develops when the balance of hormones changes and your body starts to produce too much oestrogen and not enough testosterone. This may happen during puberty, if you’ve put on weight, or due to certain medicines. It’s a common condition which affects most men at some point in their lives, often during adolescence.

    If you have gynaecomastia, a breast lump can form underneath your nipple and the breast sometimes gets bigger. Lumps can develop in one or both breasts and can sometimes be tender and sore. 

    If you notice a change in the look or feel of your breast, make an appointment with your GP. Almost all breast lumps in men are benign; however, it’s possible for men to get breast cancer

  • Your breasts do change as you get older. When you reach the menopause, the amount of glandular tissue in your breasts reduces because of hormone changes. The amount of fatty tissue goes up. This can make your breasts feel different, and some women find they’re softer and less firm.

    As you come up to the menopause, you may find your breasts feel tender and lumpy, but this often changes once you’re past the menopause.

    Some women develop a condition called duct ectasia around the time of the menopause. This is when a duct underneath your nipple becomes swollen and blocked. It can be painful and you might feel a lump behind your nipple. Your nipple can turn inwards (invert) or look like it’s been pulled back. Some women have a bloody discharge from their nipple too.

    Duct ectasia is non-cancerous and can be treated with an operation to remove the blocked ducts. However, the symptoms of duct ectasia are similar to breast cancer , so it’s important to see your GP if you have any of these symptoms.

  • Calcium lumps (breast calcifications) are small spots of calcium salts. They’re very common and develop as you get older. You probably won’t be able to feel them – they’re usually found when women have a mammogram.

    Calcium lumps are usually benign and harmless. However, they can sometimes be an early sign of breast cancer, particularly if there are a few in the same area of your breast. If you have calcium lumps, your doctor may ask you to have more tests.

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  • Reviewed by Graham Pembrey, Lead Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, November 2017
    Expert Reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due November 2020

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