October 9, 2023
October 9, 2023

What Does a Breast Lump Feel Like? Plus More Breast Health FAQs

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What Does a Breast Lump Feel Like? Plus More Breast Health FAQs

Finding a lump in your breast can be a jarring experience. However, breast lumps are extremely common and mostly benign (non-cancerous). This doesn’t mean you should ignore changes in your breast tissue. 

The truth is, while each type of lump has tell-tale surgical and microscopic features, you can’t determine the nature of a lump based solely on how it feels. You should always let your healthcare provider know whenever you find a new lump, bump, or growth.

But what do breast lumps feel like? To answer that question, we’ll delve into the characteristics and differences between benign and cancerous lumps and why recognizing any breast changes or signs of breast cancer early on is crucial. 

In this article, we’ll guide you through the different types of breast lumps and when to see a doctor. We’ll also touch upon the importance of regular check-ups. It’s time to equip yourself with essential knowledge about breast health.

What Do Breast Lumps Feel Like Compared to Your Baseline?

Detecting breast cancer early requires knowing the difference between normal breast tissue and lumps, which can sometimes (though not always) indicate an underlying condition. The ability to recognize when something has changed or feels different depends on your understanding of your own "baseline," or what is typical for you.

It's important that you get to know your own body before asking “What do breast lumps feel like?” 

Here’s why:

Early detection. The sooner a change is detected, the sooner it can be evaluated, and if necessary, treated. Early detection of conditions like breast cancer improves the prognosis and can reduce the invasiveness of required treatments.

Personal variability. Every individual's breasts are different. What's normal for one person might not be normal for another. Knowing your baseline helps you differentiate between your typical breast texture and potential abnormalities.

Empowerment. Being familiar with your body gives you a sense of control and encourages proactive health measures.

Reduced anxiety. If you're familiar with the usual state of your breasts, you're less likely to become overly alarmed by normal changes, such as those that occur with the menstrual cycle.

Helps medical professionals. By understanding what's typical for you, you can provide healthcare professionals with accurate information that might aid in diagnosis and treatment.

What Do Breast Lumps Feel Like? Knowing the Difference Between Benign vs. Cancerous

While breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer among women, most breast lumps are non-cancerous. In fact, around 80-85% of breast lumps are benign.

Malignant breast lumps (those that are cancerous) vary in texture, size, and sensation based on their source. Look at the qualities and characteristics for clues to help you distinguish between benign and potentially cancerous ones.

Keep in mind that you can’t tell the difference by touch. Rather, you’ll likely need a diagnostic mammogram and possibly other breast screening tests such as a breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), breast ultrasound, or biopsy. 

What Kind of Lumps Are Normal? 

It’s crucial to keep track of any changes in how your breast tissue usually feels and seek medical advice if you notice something unusual. Let’s review some examples of benign breast lumps.

Fibroadenomas: Round, smooth, firm lumps that move easily within the breast. Fibroadenomas are often described as having a rubbery texture, somewhat like a marble. 

Breast cysts: These fluid-filled sacs can feel like a grape beneath your skin and can be soft or firm to the touch. Breast cysts are sometimes tender, especially just before a menstrual period. 

Fibrocystic changes: This term describes a range of changes in the breast tissue. Breasts may feel lumpy like tapioca pudding and are often related to a woman's menstrual cycle. 

Milk cysts (Galactoceles): These lumps occur due to blocked milk ducts and may feel soft or somewhat firm.

Fat necrosis: These lumps can feel hard, smooth, and round, often forming after trauma to the breast or surgery. 

What Do Cancerous Breast Lumps Feel Like and Where Are They Found?

One question that people often ask is how to identify breast cancer lumps. Typically, cancerous lumps are hard, irregular, and painless masses that don't move when touched. They can range from hard to soft but generally feel anchored or fixed in place and don't move around easily like benign lumps. Cancerous lumps may also have irregular shapes or edges. 

Breast cancer tumors occur in various parts of the breast and tumor location in the breast may affect outcomes. You can think of each breast divided into four quadrants. Each breast will also have a central nipple portion:

  • Upper outer quadrant (UOQ): Highest frequency of tumors found but also the highest survival rate. 
  • Upper inner quadrant (UIQ): Second most common site for cancer tumors. 
  • Lower inner quadrant (LIQ): Lower frequency of tumors, spreads undetected more often and at earlier stages, poorer prognosis
  • Lower outer quadrant (LOQ): Tumors from the lower outer quadrant present a lower risk of death
  • Central nipple portion (CNP): Associated with older age, larger tumor size, and poorer outcomes. Breast cancer in men is often found near the nipple.

What Do Breast Lumps Feel Like If You Have Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a type of breast cancer that affects a small percentage of cases (about 1-5%), according to the American Cancer Society. It’s an aggressive form of cancer that leads to the breast becoming red, swollen, and warm, which is similar to an infection. Inflammation occurs due to cancer cells blocking the lymph vessels in the breast skin, leading to abnormal lymph fluid flow.

IBC tumors are typically not hard or lumpy like other types of breast cancer. Without other symptoms of breast cancer, IBC goes undiagnosed in the early stages because the symptoms might be mistaken for an infection. Early diagnosis and treatment are integral for successful outcomes.

What Does a Worrisome Breast Lump Look and Feel Like?

What do breast lumps feel like: woman pulling her friend's hand

A worrisome breast lump is typically different from regular breast tissue or other benign (non-cancerous) lumps. Here are some general characteristics of what a worrisome breast lump might feel like, based on medical literature and guidelines:

  • Breast skin may look puckered or feel dimpled like the texture of an orange
  • Breast size, shape, or volume may change
  • Changes to the symmetry of your breasts
  • Inverted nipples — nipples may feel stretched or appear to turn inward 
  • Asymmetrical ridges along the bottom of your breasts

How Do I Perform a Breast Self-Exam?

Performing a monthly breast self-exam can help you become familiar with how your breasts normally feel, making it easier to notice if something changes. If you find any lumps or notice any other changes, consult a healthcare professional. 

1. Look in the Mirror

  • Stand braless in front of a mirror. Make sure your arms are relaxed by your sides.
  • Look for any changes in your breasts.
  • Check for any skin changes, like redness or puckering.
  • Notice your nipples. Have they changed position or appear pushed inward?
  • Raise your arms above your head to check for any changes.

2. Check While Standing or Sitting

  • Raise your left arm.
  • Using your right hand, move the tips of your fingers around your left breast gently in small circular motions; cover the entire breast area and armpit. Use light, medium, and firm pressure. 
  • Start at the nipple, and examine the area in larger and larger circles until you reach the outer edge of your breast.
  • Feel the deep and superficial layers of the breast tissue.
  • Squeeze the nipple gently to check for discharge.
  • Repeat the process for your right breast.

3. Check While Lying Down

  • Lie down with a pillow under left shoulder with your left arm folded behind your head. 
  • Use your right hand in the same circular motion to examine the entire left breast and armpit.
  • Switch sides and repeat the exam on your right breast.

How Often Should I Do Breast Self-Exams and Screening Mammograms?

In addition to regular breast self-exams, the American Cancer Society recommends breast cancer screening with mammograms for early detection. Doing regular breast self-exams throughout your adult life will help you be familiar with how your breasts usually feel, regardless of conditions that could affect your breasts, such as:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Your menstrual cycle
  • Menopause

Those who have a family history of breast cancer should be extra conscientious about their breast health through regular breast exams and screening mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends following this schedule for the early detection of cancer:

  • If you're 40-44, start getting a yearly mammogram 
  • For women 45-54, it's recommended to have a mammogram each year 
  • If you're 55 or older, you can either continue with yearly mammograms or go every two years 

Make it a habit to check your breasts daily while in the shower and then more thoroughly once a month. Do your monthly breast self-exam several days after your menstrual period ends. This is when your breasts are least likely to be swollen and tender. 

During regular self-exams or clinical breast exams, you or your healthcare provider can check for abnormalities that may affect your breast health. If abnormalities are found, a follow-up with an oncologist at a cancer center might be advised. It's also essential to consider one's family history of breast cancer, as a strong family history can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Women at high risk for breast cancer should start discussing breast cancer screening with their healthcare provider or OB-GYN at around age 30. You are considered high risk for developing breast cancer if you have:

  • Exposure to significant chest X-rays or underwent radiation therapy between ages 10 to 30 
  • Presence of known BRCA gene mutations or a family history of early-onset or aggressive breast cancer 
  • Diagnosis of Li-Fraumeni, Cowden, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndromes, or a direct family member diagnosed with these syndromes 
  • A previous diagnosis of breast cancer

If You Have a Breast Lump, Keep Calm and Get Checked

Finding a lump or other abnormality in your breast can be alarming. But remember that a breast lump can feel like many other breast conditions–and it doesn’t necessarily signify breast cancer. 

Some breast lumps are benign, like fibroadenomas or fluid-filled sacs known as breast cysts. Fibrocystic breast changes can cause benign breast lumps and breast pain, are common in younger women, and can be influenced by the menstrual cycle. Furthermore, cysts or fibroadenomas can often be differentiated from breast tumors through medical procedures like mammography or breast ultrasound. 

Factors like breastfeeding, menstrual period, menopause, and even conditions like abscesses in the milk ducts can impact the normal breast tissue's feel and appearance. In some cases, lumps might be felt near the armpit, where lymph nodes are located. Regardless of possible causes, any new lump or breast changes should be discussed with a healthcare provider who’ll conduct a physical exam and guide the next steps for wellness and early intervention.

The good news is that you can now sign up for an Ezra mammogram, which uses new AI-empowered technology to detect more abnormalities, including benign and cancerous masses, dense breasts, cysts, and calcifications. Even better, the pricing for this is just $40 with health insurance.