An important aspect of breast health is knowing how your breasts feel and look. Part of that is being aware of any changes in your breasts that may be early signs of breast cancer, especially if you have a family history that might give you a higher risk for breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the most common breast cancer symptom is a lump or mass. A lump can be painless and hard with irregular edges or tender, soft or round.
You shouldn’t be worried about a breast lump. A vast majority of lumps prove to be harmless. But whenever a lump or mass is detected, it’s essential to have it checked by a health care provider.
A thorough exam
Peggy Rogers, APRN, who specializes in genetics and medical oncology at OSF HealthCare, provided the following insight regarding how to check for breast lumps and when to talk to your primary care provider.
Q. Why are breast cancer self-exams important?
A. We advocate for a woman to perform a monthly self-exam for breast cancer. Women should be familiar with how their breasts normally feel and then report any changes in appearance, skin changes or nipple discharge to a health care provider. The same holds true for men.
Women should perform their breast self-exams a few days to about a week after their menstrual periods. Hormonal changes due to the menstrual cycle may cause temporary changes in the breasts, including lumps and swelling.
Q. What does a lump feel like? How does someone know they’re feeling something of concern?
A. A breast cancer lump can feel like a marble. But it’s not always about feeling a lump. It can be any change from your normal self-exam.
Q. What about women with dense breasts – will they be able to detect a lump? What may they feel that would concern them?
A. It can be difficult to distinguish between a new lump and fibrocystic changes in normal breast tissue.
Talk to your doctor
Dense breast tissue means there is more breast and connective tissue than fatty tissue. It can increase the chance that breast cancer may go undetected by a mammogram because the amount of breast tissue can mask a change. In addition to having a 3D mammogram, or tomosynthesis, we can also add automated breast ultrasound (ABUS) to screening, which can be beneficial for breast density.
ABUS exams provide a clearer image of breast tissue to find even the smallest cancers. When used in addition to 3D mammography, ABUS can improve breast cancer detection by 55% over mammography alone. With an order from a primary care provider, ABUS can be scheduled to be completed during the same setting as an annual mammogram.
Q. When should you see a doctor?
A. You should have an annual breast exam by a physician or advanced practice provider. If you find something unusual in your normal self-breast exam, such as a new lump, nipple discharge or skin changes, report it to your primary care provider immediately.
Q. If something suspicious is found, how is it verified?
A. If a woman is younger than 30, guidelines recommend an ultrasound. If she’s older than 30, she would need a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. Both are painless and quick and can be done at the same appointment.
Q. What about breast cancer in men? Is detecting a male breast lump any different for them?
A. Having a small amount of breast tissue does not mean there are no male breast cancers. Men can get breast cancer, although it’s much less common. However, men with Klinefelter syndrome may be at higher risk for breast cancers. If they find a lump, or what is called a palpable mass, and they’re over the age of 30, guidelines recommend they receive a diagnostic mammogram with ultrasound, just like for a woman.
Q. Are there other conditions that can cause a breast lump?
A. For young women, it is common to have cysts in breasts or other benign conditions like fibro adenoma, which feels like a firm, smooth or rubbery lump, or a papilloma, a benign tumor. It doesn’t mean you will develop breast cancer. It’s also possible to have an infection in the breast. In any of these situations, they should see their health care provider.
Q. What are some other possible symptoms of breast cancer?
A. In addition to feeling or detecting a breast lump, a woman should see their health care provider if they experience any of the following:
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
- Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
- Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)
To learn more about breast cancer detection and diagnosis, download this helpful guide from the American Cancer Society.
“The takeaway here is to be aware of the changes in your breast and reach out to your provider with any concerns,” Peggy said. “It is always better to have a new lump checked out rather than waiting. Ninety percent of the time, it’s not cancer, but if it is cancer, then catching it at its earliest possible time for treatment and a cure is the best option.”
Last Updated: December 16, 2022