Symptoms - Lump or Mass

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2024 | Last updated: April 2024

Some breast cancers form lumps or masses in the breast tissue. However, noncancerous (benign) conditions can also cause harmless lumps in the breast. It is impossible to know from touch if a lump is cancerous.1,2

What is a breast lump?

A breast lump is a mass or growth inside a breast. It will feel like a solid spot. It might be in or around the breast tissue or near the armpit. Lumps can generally range in size from a pea to a golf ball (or bigger). There are many different causes of breast lumps. Finding a lump can be scary, but about 60 to 80 percent of lumps in the breast are not cancerous.1,2

Other possible causes of breast lumps include:1-3

  • Breast cysts
  • Fibroadenomas
  • Calcium deposits
  • Infections in the breast tissue

Not all lumps are cancer, but all breast lumps should be checked by a doctor. The doctor may take your medical history and perform a physical exam of your breasts. They may also use imaging tests like a mammogram or ultrasound. These tests can help give a more detailed view of a breast lump.1-3

If the doctor thinks you may have cancer, they might suggest additional tests. A breast cancer diagnosis would typically require more tests beyond imaging, such as a biopsy.1-3

What are the signs of a cancerous lump?

There is no way to be certain a lump is cancer just by feeling. But some features may make it more likely to be cancerous. These include:1-3

  • Lumps that are hard with irregular edges. Cancerous tumors are less likely to be smooth.
  • Lumps that are more fixed in place and cannot be pushed around.
  • Lumps that do not hurt. Most tumors do not hurt. A painful lump often has a different cause.
  • Lumps that grow or change with time.

Where do breast cancer lumps usually occur?

Some areas of the breast, called quadrants, account for higher rates of breast cancer lumps. Most breast cancer lumps occur in the upper, outer quadrant of the breast (toward the armpit). This is likely because there is more glandular tissue in that area of the breast. The least amount of breast cancer lumps occurs in the lower inner quadrant (underneath the nipple).5,6

The 4 quadrants of the breast are:5,6

  • Upper outer quadrant – Located toward the armpit and extends from the nipple to the outer edge of the breast tissue. About 50 percent of breast cancer lumps occur in this area of the breast. When found, these lumps are usually at a more advanced stage of breast cancer.
  • Upper inner quadrant – Located toward the center of the chest, above the nipple. About 18 percent of breast cancer lumps occur in this area.
  • Lower outer quadrant – Located below the upper outer quadrant, toward the armpit. About 11 percent of breast cancer lumps occur in this area.
  • Lower inner quadrant – Located toward the center of the chest, below the upper inner quadrant. About 6 percent of breast cancer lumps occur in this area.

Breast self-exams

Research is divided on whether breast self-exams can help people find breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about your options for breast cancer screening. Getting a regular mammogram is the best way to detect breast cancer. Women over age 40 should generally get mammograms once a year.3,4

Self-exams can be performed at the same time each month (check with your doctor to determine what is right for you). One way to do this is:3,4

  1. Start by lying on your back with 1 hand above your head.
  2. Use the fingers of your other hand to press down into the tissue over the entire breast.
  3. Stand up and feel the armpit on the same side as the breast you just felt.
  4. Gently squeeze the nipple and look for discharge.
  5. Repeat steps 1 to 4 on the other breast.
  6. Finally, examine both breasts in a mirror and check for any visible changes.

Other signs of breast cancer

A lump is not the only potential sign of breast cancer. Other possible signs of breast cancer include:1-3

  • Red skin on the breast
  • Bulging areas on the breast
  • Dimpled skin on the breast
  • Thickening or scaling skin on the breast
  • Skin on the breast that puckers like an orange peel
  • Changes to the nipple shape, like it is being pulled in (inverted)
  • Discharge from the nipple, especially if it is bloody

It is still possible to have breast cancer without feeling a lump. This is why yearly screening is important. Detecting breast cancer early can make treating it easier.1-3

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