- Breast self-exams are essential to maintaining breast health.
- Breast lumps are typically painless, solid, and can vary in size.
- More than 80% of the time, a breast lump is benign.
- There are many causes of breast lumps or abnormalities. Most are little cause for concern.
There you are, doing your regular self-exam (as you should!) and, “What’s that? A lump?!”.
At times like these, you wish you knew the answer to the question “what does a breast lump feel like?”
Discovering a breast lump or some other “abnormality” during your breast self-exam can cause you to feel overwhelmed, and maybe even scared.
The anxiety you feel until you can get it checked out can cause you to lose sleep, feel sick to your stomach, and worry obsessively about what it could be–and, how serious it might be.
Even though breast cancer is the second most common cancer found in women, most breast lumps are not cancer. In fact, more than 80% of breast lumps are benign.
It’s also good to keep in mind that some things we may think of as abnormalities in our breasts, such as cysts or fibrous breast tissue, are pretty common.
Breast cysts and fibroadenomas–usually nothing to worry about–may cause you to feel concerned. That’s understandable. You can ease your worries by scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider for a breast cancer screening that includes a mammogram.
While you shouldn’t ignore unusual conditions in your breasts, chances are pretty good that a breast lump or other abnormal finding is nothing to worry about.
Here’s How a Breast Lump Feels Like
You may be wondering what a breast lump feels like and how to tell which sensations are normal and which are cause for concern.
Usually, breast lumps are painless. If a lump in your breast is painful, it could indicate breast cancer.
Typically, cancerous breast lumps are irregular in shape. They might feel solid and firm, and they may be attached to your breast tissue.
Breast cancer lumps may be small or large. Usually, a lump is at least one centimeter before you can feel it—that’s about the size of a raspberry.
However, the ability to feel a breast lump also depends on its location within the breast, the size of your breasts, and how deep the lump is.
Most lumps will move with your breast tissue as you examine them. Still, breast lumps typically do not change locations within the breast. Occasionally, though, a breast lump will be immovable or stuck to your chest wall.
Is a Breast Lump or Other Abnormality Breast Cancer?
Not necessarily. In fact, most lumps do not mean breast cancer.
You may find lumps or changes during your breast self-exams simply because there are usually changes at various points during your menstrual cycle. This is normal and not a reason to panic.
Because of these regular changes, it’s crucial that you do your breast exams regularly. This creates a baseline so it’s clear when something is unusual.
Many things could cause an abnormality. Stay calm and call your medical provider to get their professional assessment.
If you find something that causes concern, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider and schedule a mammogram right away.
Recommended reading – How To Prepare for a Mammogram: Your Ultimate Guide
What Breast Conditions Could I Discover During a Self-Exam?
During your breast exam, you may discover any number of breast conditions–including breast lumps–that could leave you feeling concerned.
Most are nothing to be worried about, though you should see your medical provider for a check-up if you identify any of these conditions:
- Breast cyst– This is a fluid-filled sac that forms in the breast tissue and is usually caused by hormonal changes. Breast cysts typically occur in women over 35.
- Fibroadenoma– These solid, benign breast lumps are usually made up of fibrous breast tissue. They mostly occur in younger women, ages 15-35.
- Abscess– A localized collection of pus in the breast tissue, an abscess most often caused by an infection.
- Fibrocystic changes– Hormonal fluctuations during your menstrual cycle often cause changes in your breasts. These are known as fibrocystic breast changes. These may include lumps, changes in size or shape, and even nipple discharge.
- Breast lump– This could be a benign tumor or, yes, a sign of breast cancer. 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 biopsy, breast MRI, or a breast ultrasound.
What Do Cysts and Fibroadenomas Feel Like?
Breast cysts and fibroadenomas can feel similar to breast lumps but with a few differences.
Breast cysts, which are caused by fluid building up inside breast glands, are either soft or hard and can be smooth or round. Benign breast cysts are common.
When close to the breast’s surface, cysts can feel like a large blister. When they are covered deep in breast tissue, cysts will feel like hard lumps.
Fibroadenomas are benign tumors made up of glandular and connective breast tissue. They are usually smooth and firm, and they can feel rubbery to the touch. Fibroadenomas are most common in younger women who are premenopausal.
How Should I Do a Breast Self-Exam?
Typical methods of doing a breast self-exam include:
- In the shower. Try to examine your breasts daily when showering. If your hands are slippery with soap and water, it’ll help your hands glide more smoothly over your skin.
- Visually in front of a mirror. Naked from the waist up, stand with your arms at your sides and look at your breasts. Then, raise your arms above your head, palms together, and look down again. Finally, look at your breasts with your hands pressed down on your hips. In all three positions, take note of the following:
- Puckering or dimpling
- Changes in your breast size or shape
- Changes to the symmetry of your breasts
- Inverted nipples (nipples that are turned inward)
- Symmetrical ridges along the bottom of your breasts.
- Lying down. When you lie down on your back, your breast tissue flattens, so it gets thinner and easier to feel.
Regardless of how, when, or where you are examining your breast, you’ll generally use the same breast exam techniques:
- Use the pads of your fingers. Your fingers’ pads, not the tips, are more sensitive and may help you feel anything unusual.
- Vary the pressure of your touch. Use light pressure to feel the breast tissue just underneath your skin, medium pressure to palpate your breast tissue a little deeper, and firm pressure to feel the tissue nearer to your chest and ribs.
- Take your time. It will take 5-10 minutes to examine your breasts thoroughly. For this reason, it’s a good idea to do a shower exam each day, and more thorough visual and lying-down self-exams once a month.
- Examine in sections. Imagine a pie that is divided into large slices. Move through each “slice of the pie” as a section. Begin near your collarbone (the outer “pie crust”) and examine that section, moving your fingers toward your nipple (the “center of the pie”). Then, move your fingers to the next area.
- Do this clockwise until you’ve gone around each breast from the top (at your collarbone), down to the underside of your breast (at the top of your ribs), and up to the top again.
How Often Should I Do Breast Self-Exams and Screening Mammograms?
Doing regular breast self-exams throughout your adult life will help you to be familiar with how your breasts usually feel, regardless of conditions that could affect your breasts, such as:
- Your menstrual cycle
Those who have a family history of breast cancer should be extra conscientious about attending to their breast health through regular breast exams and screening mammograms.
Make it a habit to check your breasts daily while in the shower and then more thoroughly once a month. An annual checkup with your healthcare provider and an annual mammogram is also recommended, especially if you are over 40.
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.
Will the Coronavirus Vaccine Delay My Mammogram?
The coronavirus vaccine sometimes causes swollen lymph nodes under the arm in which you received your shot.
Swollen lymph nodes aren’t a bad thing; it just means your vaccine is doing its job. Your lymph nodes swell when your immune system is working to fight an infection or virus. This swelling is simply a reaction to the vaccine because your body is building up its defenses against the virus.
Some medical practitioners believe having a mammogram right after having a COVID-19 vaccination dose may cause unnecessary concern about swollen lymph nodes. For that reason, they recommend waiting four to six weeks after your second vaccine shot before having a mammogram.
If your mammogram is just a routine screening, it usually can’t hurt to reschedule or schedule four to six weeks after your final vaccination shot.
However, you should still proceed with your scheduled mammogram if:
- You’ve found a breast lump (especially if it is painful).
- You noticed your nipples are puckered inward.
- You have localized pain or redness.
- You see discharge from your nipple.
- You are considered high-risk for developing breast cancer.
- You have breast cancer.
- You’re overdue for a mammogram.
Should you decide to proceed with your mammogram appointment, let your radiology technician know that you’ve recently had the COVID vaccine, the date you had it, and which arm you had it in.
Ask your radiology tech to add this information to your chart so your healthcare practitioner will have all the information they need when they review your images.
If You Find a Breast Lump, Don’t Panic, but Do Get It Checked
Finding a lump or other abnormality in your breast can be alarming. After all, a breast lump can feel like many other breast conditions–and, it doesn’t necessarily signify breast cancer.
Before you panic, make an appointment with your healthcare provider and find out what’s really going on. A breast lump could be something as simple, and benign, as a cyst or a fibroadenoma.
Finally, before making a plan for your next breast screening, it’s important to know your risk. If you’re curious about your risk of breast or other types of cancer, take ezra’s five-minute online assessment.