Catching breast cancer early

Lumps and other signs to look out for

Finding a breast lump can be very worrying. While many lumps felt in the breast can be something perfectly benign, such as a simple cyst, some lumps can be an early sign of breast cancer. May 14-20, 2023 is National Women’s Health Week, and a great time to educate yourself about when you should be concerned about a breast lump or other breast cancer findings, and when you should see your doctor.

What does a breast cancer lump feel like?

Breast lumps can be of many different shapes, sizes and textures. They can be small or large, soft or firm, rough or smooth, fixed or movable. Lumps can feel different when examined in different positions, and at varying times during your menstrual cycle, if you still have periods. If you chose to perform regular breast self-examinations, it is useful to examine yourself a few days after your period has finished or around the same time each month. The key is to recognize what your breasts feel like normally, so that if something feels different, you have detected it quickly and can seek medical help.

If you’ve found a breast lump, it isn’t possible to tell if it’s cancerous just by feeling it – which is why it’s so important to get it seen quickly by a doctor. If a breast lump is cancerous, finding it early can make it easier to treat. 

Where are most breast cancer lumps found?

Breast cancer lumps are most common in the upper, outer area of the breast, but they can be found anywhere in the breast area and into the armpits. If you check your breasts, make sure you feel up to the collarbone. You should also feel in your armpits for any lumps, bumps or skin changes. Lymph glands in the armpit can feel swollen due to breast cancer, although this is not always a sign of cancer, as they can often become swollen if you have an infection or cold.

Are breast cancer lumps painful?

Many women occasionally experience pain in their breasts. You may find that your breasts hurt around the time of your period, during pregnancy or after menopause, which is normal due to natural hormonal changes. Pain in the breasts can also be caused by injury, mastitis (infection) or a breast cyst. However, if you’re experiencing new or unusual breast pain and have any concerns, make sure you see your doctor.

What kind of lumps are normal in breasts?

Not all breast lumps are cancerous, in fact most aren’t. Many women find that their breasts change through their monthly cycle. You may notice that your breasts often feel lumpy just before your period as part of these regular monthly changes. The key issue here, is any change in the usual feel of your breasts.

Breast cysts, which are sacs of fluid in the breast, are a common cause of breast lumps. Women of all ages may develop breast cysts, although they are particularly common in women over 35. Breast cysts are generally harmless and may shrink on their own, or they can be drained through fine needle aspiration. They usually stop forming after menopause.

Sometimes lumps are areas of fibrous, glandular tissue called fibroadenomas. They are common in women under the age of 30. But, again, they are usually harmless and won’t require any treatment.

Every woman’s breasts are different. It’s normal to experience changes in your breasts throughout your life. The key thing to look out for is any unusual changes for you. If you’re unsure about anything, talk to your doctor. 


Should I only be concerned about breast lumps?

Breast lumps are not the only sign of breast cancer – and not all women who have breast cancer notice a lump. If you choose to perform breast self-examinations, here are our top tips:

  • Get to know your breasts – Find a time and a place where you feel comfortable. Use your hands and fingers to press and feel all over the breast area. Some women find it easiest in the bath or shower. Remember, everyone’s breasts are different, so you want to find out what feels normal for you.
  • Use a mirror to help – Make sure to look at your breasts in front of the mirror and raise your arms above your head to look at the lower part of the breasts. Look to see if the outlines of your breasts look the same or if there are any areas bulging out or pulled in (puckered).
  • Don’t forget your armpits – Make sure you check the entire breast area. Then also check right up to the collarbone and into your armpits.
  • Find your routine – It’s a good idea to check your breasts regularly, ideally once a month. This will help you learn what feels normal for you and make it easier to spot if anything has changed. Think about a time that is easy to remember every month, so checking your breasts becomes a habit. Try to examine your breasts in the same position and direction each month, and to include the entire breast.
  • Remember to check for other signs and symptoms – You should also keep an eye out for any other changes to your breasts. These include any thickening, crusting, rashes or redness in your skin, changes in size, shape or texture, swelling or pain, changes to the shape or position of the nipples (inverted nipple or dimpling) or discharge from the nipples.
  • If in doubt, see a doctor – If you feel anything different or unusual, speak to your OB/GYN or primary healthcare provider.

Learn more about how to perform self-examinations:

If you notice any changes to your breasts or have concerns, speak to a doctor.

You should also make sure you attend any regular screening appointments for breast cancer. The American Society of Breast Surgeons recommends women begin annual breast cancer screenings at the age of 40. Women at high risk (i.e., first degree relative with breast cancer, no history of pregnancy, previous history of breast cancer, etc.) should talk to their healthcare provider about when they should consider beginning screenings.

What should I do if I suspect I have a lump?

If you feel a lump in your breast or notice any other changes or anything unusual, you should see your doctor. They will discuss your symptoms with you and perform an examination. They may also choose to do a mammogram or other imaging to determine the cause of any lumps.

This blog post was reviewed for clinical accuracy by Elizabeth Arguelles, MD, FACS, Breast Surgeon, Christopher Chen, MD, FACRO, Radiation Oncologist, Colette Salm-Schmid, MD, Breast Surgeon, Paul Wallner, DO, Radiation Oncologist and J. Ben Wilkinson, MD, FACRO, Radiation Oncologist. It was last updated on May 15, 2023.

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