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Know Your Breast Lumps

Harmless and Harmful Breast Lumps - Know the Difference


Updated August 11, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

During a breast self-exam, you may notice lumps or a change in texture. Knowing the difference between harmless and harmful breast lumps is important to your health.

There are three kinds of benign breast lumps:

  • Cysts
  • Fibroadenomas
  • Pseudolumps

There is one type of cancerous lump: Malignant breast tumor.

Breast Lumps in Detail:

Breast Cysts:

What is it? This is a benign (harmless) fluid-filled sac, which can grow right within the breast tissue.

What does it feel like? This breast lump will feel smooth and squishy. If you are pressing on a cyst, it will have some give to it, like a water balloon. A cyst can move around and can change in size during your menstrual cycle.

Where is it? Breast cysts can be located near the surface, or deeper inside, close to your chest wall. If the cyst is closer to the surface, it is easy to find and easy to distinguish from other lumps. But if it is deeper inside, it's more difficult to distinguish it from other kinds of breast lumps, because when you press on it, you're actually trying to work through layers of breast tissue, which may be dense and firm.

Treatment: Your doctor can help you determine that a lump is a harmless cyst, by doing a fine needle aspiration biopsy with a syringe. This procedure removes the fluid from inside the cyst, which is examined under a microscope to determine whether the cyst is benign or cancerous.  It is possible that as a result of the aspiration, the cyst may deflate and it may not return. In addition, ultrasounds are usually recommended when cysts are suspected; talk to your doctor about whether this is the right course of action for you.

When does it appear? Commonly, it appears in women who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, but it can appear in women of any age.  They are most often found in women who are nearing menopause. Cysts may disappear in post-menopausal women, unless they take hormone therapy.

Does it show up on a mammogram?
Yes. See what breast cysts look like on a mammogram.

Breast Fibroadenomas:

What is it? This is a benign tumor, consisting of glandular and connective tissue.

What does it feel like? This will feel like a round breast lump, and can be hard or firm. It can be moved around during a breast self-exam.

Where is it? These can be located near the surface of the breast and are easily felt.

Treatment: Most fibroadenomas require no treatment, but a fibroadenoma can be removed, if needed, with a lumpectomy, a laser ablation,or cryoablation. If there is some doubt about the fibroadenoma, it can biopsied, to make sure that it is harmless.

When does it appear? Fibroadenomas usually appear in women younger than 30, but they can appear in women of any age. They may occur during pregnancy. They are not common in post-menopausal women.

Does it show up on a mammogram?
Yes. See a breast fibroadenoma on a mammogram.

Breast Pseudolumps:

What is it? These are benign, and may be scar tissue, hardened silicone, necrotic (dead) fat, or a rib bone pressing into breast tissue and compressing it.

What does it feel like? This kind of breast lump can feel quite hard and usually doesn't change shape or size during a menstrual cycle. It may or may not be movable, depending on what it is actually composed of.

Where is it? Pseudolumps can be located near the surface, or deeper inside the breast, close to the chest wall.

Treatment: To be sure that a pseudolump is harmless, get a mammogram and ultrasound, and if those are not clear, have a needle biopsy done, so that a tissue sample can be analyzed by a pathologist. If it is bothersome, you can have it surgically removed.

When does it appear? If you've previously had breast surgery or enhancement done, or if a rib has shifted, then a pseudolump may occur.

Can Pseudolumps Show up on a Mammogram?
Maybe. Find out more about breast pseudolumps and mammograms.

Breast Cancer:

What is it? A malignant lump that is made of abnormal breast tissue cells, growing in an uncontrolled way that may spread to the adjacent tissues or other organs.

What does it feel like? A malignant breast lump will have an irregular shape (not round) with a pebbly surface, somewhat like a golf ball. It will be very hard, like a slice of raw carrot. It may not be movable during a breast self-exam, but since tissue around it may move, it's sometimes hard to know if the lump is moving, or if healthy tissue around it is moving. A clinical breast exam and a mammogram will help to clear up the diagnosis. A needle biopsy would provide more information about the lump.

Where is it? Breast cancer can be located near the surface, or deeper inside the breast, close to the chest wall. It can also occur in the armpit area, where there is more breast tissue.

Treatment: The lump itself may be treated with one, or a combination of therapies: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone suppression therapy. Talking with your doctor will help you decide on the best treatment plan for your particular diagnosis.

When does it appear? Breast cancer may appear in women who are pubescent, in their fertile years, peri-menopausal, or postmenopausal.

Can breast cancer show up on a mammogram?
Yes. See what breast tumors look like on a mammogram.


Related Video
Getting a Breast Biopsy
Signs of Breast Cancer
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