Understanding All Types of Breast Lumps and What Causes Them

Don't panic if you feel something new — but here's why you should get it checked out, even if you think it's "normal."

woman palpating her breast by herself that she concern about breast cancer
stefanamerGetty Images

Many women know the scary sensation of feeling a lump in their breast and wondering, “Is this new? Was this there before? Is this normal? Or….could I have cancer?”

The reassuring truth is that most breast lumps aren’t a sign of something dangerous. Even so, it’s important to see a physician when you find one — and when you do that, you'll be armed with the information here.

Causes of breast lumps

First, a bio 101 refresher on the breast, which is a pretty amazing organ. Yes, it’s an organ, with a specific function, according to Johns Hopkins Pathology: to make milk for breast-feeding. The body tissue of the breast contains lobules — that’s where the milk is produced— that connect to ducts that lead out to the nipple. It’s in the cells of these lobules and ducts where most breast cancers arise, points out Johns Hopkins Pathology.

But before your mind goes down the dark rabbit hole of cancer, here are things that can cause benign (non-cancerous) breast lumps.

What kind of breast lumps are normal?

It’s important for you to know which lumps are normal for your breast tissue, because breasts come in different textures, and they can change over the course of the month. So get to know your breasts: Physicians suggest you perform a self-exam three to five days after your period, and alert your doctor to any changes in how they look or feel.

"Self-exams are primarily so that women can get to know their own normal and can identify when something is amiss," says Dorrya El-Ashry, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. "That could be a lump, dimpling of the skin, redness, or discharge from the nipple. There can be changes in our breasts due to fluctuating hormones throughout the cycle."

Types of non-cancerous breast lumps

  • Fibroadenomas. The most common of benign breast lumps, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, these are usually painless and feel solid, round and rubbery; they also move freely if you push on them. They’re common in women in their 20s, and can be taken out surgically.
  • Fibrocystic breast changes. Have you noticed breast changes right before your period hits? This happens when premenstrual hormonal shifts have made the milk ducts and surrounding tissues grow and form cysts. They’re often tender, and you may notice discharge from the nipple as well. The lumps may feel rubbery or hard, and can be small or large. For women ages 35 to 50, they’re the most common type of benign breast lumps.
  • Cysts. These are small sacs filled with fluid, and it’s normal to have them in both breasts, and to have a number of them. You may notice that they change over the course of your cycle. They can be treated with a procedure called fine needle aspiration, in which the physician inserts a needle to release the fluid — but cysts can also go away on their own, so discuss options with your doctor.
  • Intraductal papillomas. These small growths, sort of like warts, are located close to the nipple in the lining of the mammary duct. One symptom: The nipple may bleed. They’re most common in women ages 30-50, and they can be removed via surgery.
  • Traumatic fat necrosis. This is a scary name for a breast injury (one that you may not even remember!) that causes hard, round lumps to form from fat in the area. They’re painless and don’t usually need to be treated—but it can be hard to know if this is the reason for the lump, so your doctor may suggest a biopsy. A lump like this doesn’t need to be removed, but it can be taken out if it bugs you.
    woman palpating her breast by herself that she concern about breast cancer
    dragana991Getty Images

    Cancerous breast lumps

    When cells in your breast grow in an uncontrolled way into a tumor, that’s breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), in the U.S. it’s the most common cancer diagnosed in women, and their second leading cause of death from cancer, after lung cancer.

    What does a cancerous lump feel like?

    A new lump that’s hard and painless with irregular edges is more likely to be breast cancer, says the ACS. But a malignant lump can also be soft and round, and tender or perhaps painful, the ACS points out.

    Breast cancer symptoms

    The ACS also says to consider these other breast cancer symptoms:

    • A breast that’s swollen, either in part or all over
    • Dimpling of skin on the breast that may look like orange peel
    • Pain in the breast or nipple
    • Nipple retraction (meaning, it’s turned inward rather than poking out)
    • Nipple discharge (assuming you’re not breast-feeding)
    • Swollen lymph nodes near the collar bone or under the arm

      Of course, some of these symptoms can be a sign of something else entirely — that’s why it’s a key part of preventative health to have your breasts screened regularly, and to talk to a physician any time you become aware of a new breast lump. "If any of these changes persist, see your doctor," says Dr. El-Ashry.

      How to keep your breasts healthy

      Some risk factors for breast cancer can’t be changed (being female and getting older, for example). "Knowing your family history is important, to help determine the age you should begin screening," says Dr. El-Ashry. But there are healthy lifestyle changes you can make to lower your chances, assuming you aren’t at high risk because of genetics, according to the ACS:

      • Stay at a healthy weight. Increased body weight raises your risk after menopause. (Keep in mind that "healthy weight" doesn't necessarily mean thin — talk to your doctor about what a healthy weight is for you.)
      • Move your body. Being even moderately active is linked to a lower risk of breast cancer. The ACS defines “moderate activity” as movement in which you’re breathing as hard as you would during a brisk walk.
      • Maintain a healthy diet. "Focus on one that is more plant-based and particularly rich in leafy greens and fiber," says Dr. El-Ashry.
      • Limit alcohol (or skip it entirely). Drinking any amount of alcohol raises your risk. The ACS advises that if you’re going to drink, don’t have more than one a day.
        This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
        Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
        More From Health