Come across a breast lump you hadn’t noticed before? Don’t panic. Here’s what a GP wants you to know.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Dr Graham Archard
If you suddenly discover a lump in your breast, it’s natural to panic and imagine the worst. But while breast cancer is a very real and worrying health risk, most breast lumps are in fact totally harmless and easily treatable.
If you do discover a new lump, you should always be seen by a doctor just to be sure. But to put your mind at ease in the meantime, Dr Graham Archard of the Royal College of General Practitioners gives us the lowdown on breast lumps:
Breast lump general rules
Firstly, getting to know how your body normally looks and feels is vital so anything unusual can quickly be spotted and checked. Here are five basic rules every woman should know about breast health:
💗 Painful lumps: these are less likely to be dangerous than painless ones.
💗 Soft lumps: these are less likely to be dangerous than hard ones.
💗 Lumps that move freely: they are less likely to be dangerous than ones that don’t.
💗 Smooth lumps: they are less likely to be dangerous than rough ones.
💗 Lumps that grow very fast: if they grow fast over a few days or weeks, they are unlikely to be dangerous.
Of course, these are general guidelines that are true in most, but not all, cases. The message should be: if you’re worried see your doctor.
Here are the most common types of breast lumps, plus likely causes and treatment options:
Small, moveable breast lump
How does it look and feel? Rubbery and painless, although may sometimes feel tender.
Likely cause? A fibroadenoma or ‘breast mouse’, which is the result of excess growth of glands and connective tissue. Fibroadenomas are most common in younger women (in their 20s and 30s) but can occur at any age.
How is it treated? Fibroadenomas don’t increase the risk of breast cancer but any kind of lump should be seen by your doctor, who will refer you to a breast clinic for investigations.
Pain in one or both breasts
How does it look and feel? May be an aching or a burning, pricking or stabbing pain that can spread to the armpit and beyond.
Likely cause? Cyclical or non-cyclical breast pain. Cyclical breast pain is common in the week before your period. Non-cyclical breast pain can occur at any time. It may be caused by problems with surrounding muscles/joints or may have no apparent cause.
How is it treated? Although breast pain is rarely a symptom of anything serious, it’s important to check it out with a doctor. Dietary changes and treatment with evening primrose oil may help relieve breast pain in some women.
How does it look and feel? Breasts may feel lumpier, heavier and fuller but it’s difficult to locate a specific lump, and may be uncomfortable or painful.
Likely cause? Diffuse nodularity – lumpy breasts – which is very common before the menopause.
How is it treated? Lumpy breasts are normal but it’s important to know what looks and feels normal for you so that you can spot any unusual changes.
A grape-shaped breast lump
How does it look and feel? The lump feels soft and smooth, and appears suddenly, most often found in the upper part of the breast. It may be tender and mobile and may become larger and feel sore before your period
Likely cause? A cyst – a fluid-filled sac under the skin, which is most common among women from their 30s to menopause. Cysts near the surface tend to feel soft, while deeper cysts feel like hard lumps.
How is it treated? It’s important to see your doctor immediately to check any lump. Cysts are often left untreated, but the fluid may be removed using a fine needle and syringe.
Painless, fixed, hard, irregular breast lump
How does it look and feel? Usually painless.
Likely cause? Could possibly be a cancerous lump, although it may be another benign condition caused by extra growth of tissue within the breast nodules.
How is it treated? Nine out of 10 breast lumps are benign. See your doctor immediately and you will be referred to a breast clinic for further investigation.
Changes to the appearance of your breast
How does it look and feel? Skin thickening or dimpling, a change in the size or appearance of your breasts, any nipple discharge or change in position of nipple.
Likely cause? Although there may be other explanations, these could all be signs of breast cancer so they must be checked out.
How is it treated? See your doctor immediately for further investigation.
A small breast lump under the areola
How does it look and feel? There may be a discharge of clear, sticky or bloodstained fluid. It may be painful.
Likely cause? An intraductal papilloma – a wart-like lump that develops in the duct behind the areola.
How is it treated? Although this doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer, see your doctor immediately for referral to a breast clinic. In most cases no treatment is required but sometimes surgery may be required to remove affected ducts.