What Is a Lump?
Sometimes a growth forms within breast tissue, resulting in a lump, swelling or discernible mass. While it is possible that a breast lump may be a sign of breast cancer, often they are benign. A growth or swelling may be caused by a range of factors, such as injury, cysts, fibrocystic changes and breast cancer. If may have a distinct form or it may simply feel like a thickening of tissue. Breast pain, redness of the skin and changes to the nipple are all possible as well.
While growths or changes to breast tissue are usually noncancerous, it is important to have a lump identified if it may be cancer. Understanding the basics of the different types of breast lumps you can have a better idea of what is going on with your body.
A breast cyst is a type of noncancerous lump. According to the California Pacific Medical Center, it is possible to have one or several cysts, ranging in size from a pea to a ping pong ball. What are they exactly? A cyst in the breast is a sac of fluid which formed because normal milk glands became bigger.
Of all the types of lumps found in breast tissue, a cyst is fairly common. Larger ones can be felt with a self-exam, while smaller ones will appear on a mammogram. If detected, your doctor can take an ultrasound of the lump to diagnose it as a breast cyst and to determine if it is ‘simple’ or ‘complex.’ A simple cyst is always benign. A complex cyst may contain a tumor, but these are usually benign.
There is no greater risk for breast cancer if you have breast cysts. They can be left alone unless they cause discomfort, in which case they can be drained. If your doctor feels they are unsure if the lump is a cyst they may also attempt to drain the cyst to make sure it is just filled with fluid, and if not, to determine what the material actually is.
Fibrocystic Breast Changes
If a lump is a fibrocystic breast change it will probably feel more like a swelling or thickening and will come and go with the menstrual cycle. The change in hormones that happens every month can cause changes in breast tissue. Also, taking hormones, such as through birth control pills, hormone injections, or hormone replacement therapy, can also cause these benign breast lumps. Pain, burning, and itching may accompany fibrocystic breast changes.
Injury or Infection to the Breast
Another type of lump can simply be the result of an injury or infection to breast tissue or nerves, which causes an inflammation of tissue. If you were injured in any way around the chest area, this may be the cause, but if the lump does not go away it is important to see your doctor. A breast infection, known as a mastitis, can occur from breastfeeding. This type of lump would be characterized by a lump or thickened skin in a breastfeeding woman. Postmenopausal women can also end up with a breast infection, causing milk duct to become inflamed. Symptoms include a lump, breast pain, nipple discharge and nipple retraction.
Common among women in their twenties and thirties, a fibroadenoma is a noncancerous tumor. This type of lump is not dangerous or a sign of cancer, but they should be monitored to make sure they are not breast cancer, particularly if there is any change in size and shape (they will naturally get bigger during pregnancy and breastfeeding). They are firm and smooth and have a well-defined round shape, ranging in size from one to five centimeters. A fibroadenoma will move if you put pressure one it. It should be painless.
How do you know if a lump found in the breast may be a sign of cancer? Breast cancer lumps are painless and hard, rather then fluid or smooth and rubbery. Also, they tend to have an irregular shape and are not simply a thickened part of breast tissue. Skin can be red and dimpled and there may be discharge from the nipple.
When to See a Doctor
There are several different types of breast lumps, most of which are common and perfectly natural. Regardless, it is important to have a lump checked out by a doctor to rule out breast cancer. Detecting a cancerous tumor early greatly raises the chances of successfully treating the disease.
California Pacific Medical Center, https://www.cpmc.org/services/women/breast/breast_cyst.html
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, https://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp138.cfm
“Identifying Breast Lumps.” Women’s Health, https://www.womens-health.co.uk/benign.html
photo by Patrick J. Lynch