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Breast Cancer Lumps: What Does One Feel Like?

Posted on June 09, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Victoria Menard

Feeling a lump in your breast can be frightening — especially if you have had breast cancer. As one MyBCTeam member wrote, “Every night when I’m in bed, I feel the lumps and get anxious. How could I not?!” Although more than 80 percent of breast lumps turn out to be benign (noncancerous), it may be difficult for you to tell whether a lump is a cause for concern.

This guide will help you become more familiar with what normal bumps and variations in your breasts feel like versus lumps that may be cancerous. Tell your health care team immediately if you find a new lump in your breast. If the lump does turn out to be cancerous, early detection — through procedures like screening mammograms — is key to achieving the best possible outcomes. One MyBCTeam member offered great advice: “Trust your instincts — and if you have any concerns at all, speak to your doctor and get it checked. Always better to be safe than sorry.”

What Does Normal Breast Tissue Feel Like?

Not all lumps in the breasts are malignant (cancerous). As one MyBCTeam member wrote, “Keep in mind that breasts are naturally fibrous and lumpy and often change with your menstrual cycle and hormone changes.”

It’s true — women commonly have irregularities and lumpy areas in their breast tissues. What’s more, the structures in and around the breasts may sometimes be detectable as small bumps. The lymph nodes and milk lobes, for instance, may feel like soft beans or soft peas.

As another member shared, “I was told some small lumps are normal. You just have to get to know what your normal is.” This is great advice — familiarizing yourself with your breast tissue will help you understand when something feels different or if a new lump appears.

What Do Breast Cancer Lumps Feel Like?

Most cancerous lumps in the breasts are not painful (although a small number may cause discomfort). Breast cancer lumps are typically irregular in shape and feel like firm or solid lumps. They are single (not clustered) lumps, and they generally don't move if you press them.

Cancerous lumps can come in any shape and size and can vary depending on the size of a woman’s breasts, the location of the lump, and how deeply in the breast tissue the lump is growing.

Although breast cancer lumps can grow anywhere in the breasts, they frequently grow from the mammary glands (ducts). About 50 percent of these lumps develop in the outer upper portion of the breast and extend into the armpit area. Less common locations for cancerous breast lumps include the nipple area (18 percent of cases), the outer lower quadrant (11 percent), and the inner lower quadrant (6 percent).

It is impossible to determine whether a lump in the breast is cancerous based only on how it feels. If you notice any new or changed lumps in your breasts, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

What Do Benign Breast Lumps Look and Feel Like?

The majority of lumps found in the breasts are not cancerous. If you find a lump, the best thing you can do is go to your doctor for guidance. As one MyBCTeam member shared, “My doctor was wonderful in teaching me about discerning how a lump might feel as opposed to a cyst, scar tissue, or a fold in the implant. Have a talk with your doctor.”

The following are other breast conditions that can cause noncancerous lumps:

  • Fibroadenomas
  • Cysts
  • Abscesses
  • Fat necrosis
  • Scar tissue
  • Hematomas
  • Galactoceles (milk retention cysts)
  • Sclerosing adenosis

Fibroadenomas

Fibroadenomas are the most common type of noncancerous breast lump. Fibroadenomas are a type of benign tumor, and they can’t spread to other tissues. They are typically found in women in their 20s and 30s, although they can develop at any age. A fibroadenoma is painless and may feel smooth, rubbery, or firm. Unlike a cancerous lump, a fibroadenoma can be moved around freely in the breast.

Cysts

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that form when fluid accumulates in the breasts’ glands or tissues. They typically feel round and smooth and may be hard or soft. Cysts close to the surface of the skin may feel softer, like large unbroken blisters. Those that develop deep in the breast tissue will feel more like firm lumps. Breast cysts tend to become larger and more tender right before your menstrual period starts.

Abscesses

Abscesses are collections of pus that form in the tissues of the body. A breast abscess may feel like a sore lump and may be accompanied by fever.

Fat Necrosis

Fat necrosis occurs when the fatty tissues in the breasts have been damaged, resulting in firm, round, painless lumps. Fat necrosis may result from radiation therapy, breast biopsy, breast surgery like a lumpectomy, or other injuries to the fatty breast tissue.

Scar Tissue

Some MyBCTeam members report developing scar tissue that has left lumps in their breasts. “I had a scar tissue near my implant,” wrote one member, “which formed a hard lump.” Another member shared that they have two lumps on their noncancerous breast, which their doctors believe to be “scar tissue around some sutures.”

Hematomas

A breast hematoma is a pool of blood in the breast caused by surgery or injury. In some cases, this mass may be mistaken for a cancerous lump. Injuries that lead to hematomas may also lead to fat necrosis over time.

Galactoceles

A galactocele, also referred to as a milk retention cyst, is a fluid-filled mass. Unlike a cyst, however, a galactocele contains milk or milky fluid. A milk retention cyst is frequently caused by a blocked milk duct.

Sclerosing Adenosis

Sclerosing adenosis refers to the growth of excess tissue in the breast lobules (glands that produce milk). This tissue growth can cause small lumps to form that may be mistaken for malignant growths. A breast biopsy can be used to differentiate between sclerosing adenosis and a cancerous tumor.

Look For Other Breast Changes

A woman can have breast cancer without noticing any changes in breast lumps. As one MyBCTeam member shared, “I never felt a lump or had any tenderness in my breasts.” In fact, some cases of breast cancer are first detected when the nipples change in appearance, secrete fluids, or become tender, or when the breast’s skin becomes dimpled or puckered.

The same member went on to note that other symptoms helped point to a diagnosis of breast cancer: “What I did have was a flattening of my nipples. No tenderness or pain — just that my nipples didn’t get erect anymore and were inverted. And a year before, I had a blood clot in my lung. Found out later that these can both be signs of breast cancer.”

Let your doctor know if you experience any other symptoms of breast cancer, such as nipple discharge, skin dimpling, or swelling in the surrounding tissues (around the armpit or collarbone). According to the Stony Brook Cancer Center, any abnormality in the size, texture, shape, or nipple of just one breast — rather than both — may be more dangerous than changes affecting both breasts symmetrically.

Meet Your Team

Life with breast cancer is full of ups and downs. Having a team by your side can make a world of difference. MyBCTeam is the social network for women with breast cancer and their loved ones. Here, more than 53,000 women from across the globe come together to offer support and advice, share stories, and meet others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have something to add to the conversation? Share your thoughts or experiences in the comments below or by posting on MyBCTeam.

Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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