A breast lump is a growth or swelling that occurs on or around your breast tissue, and can have a number of different causes. Most people worry about cancer when they find a breast lump, but most breast lumps are not cancerous. Nevertheless, it is always important to seek further advice from your doctor, so that they can rule out anything concerning.
Breast tissue is affected by hormones, and women are more likely to be affected by changes in their breast tissue than men. For this reason, it can be common to have breast changes during your monthly period cycle or when you are breastfeeding.
Awareness of breast cancer is high, so lumps do understandably cause alarm. You should get any breast lump checked out with urgency, but for your reassurance, not all lumps are cancerous – depending on your age and other factors, alternative causes may be more likely.
You may notice lumps in different places on each breast each month, but they go away with each period cycle. These are called fibroadenomas and are entirely innocent, and they’re more common in women aged between 15 and 35.
Breast cysts are non-cancerous sacs that get a build-up of fluid. They can disappear by themselves. If they get very large, you may need to get them drained, but they carry no risk to your health.
If your lump is an abscess caused by an infection you may need some antibiotics to clear it up.
If the lump is due to cancer, it will be investigated thoroughly and your treatment options will be explained to you. Breast cancer is common in women, and some factors can put you at higher risk, such as if you are a woman over the age of 50, if you are overweight or obese, or have increased alcohol consumption, or if a close family member has had a certain type of breast or ovarian cancer, usually diagnosed at less than 50 years old.
While much less common in men, they have breast tissue and can also develop breast cancer. They so should get any lump checked out by their doctor, too.
You should always see your doctor if you discover a new breast lump or notice any changes or differences to your breasts. These differences can be:
changes to the skin around your breasts (rashes, bruising, or looking like the tiny dimples on the skin of an orange)
changes to the skin and shape of your nipples (rashes, inversion or drawing in of the nipple)
any new lumps in your armpit
new nipple discharge, besides milk if you’re breastfeeding
With your consent, your doctor will examine you and the changes you have noticed in your breast. They will also examine the armpits for any lymph node enlargement, which may be related. If they think you need further investigation for the cause of your lump, they will refer you to a specialist clinic for investigations.
The specialist clinic may also examine you, and they may use imaging. This will either be:
an ultrasound scan, for women below the age of 35, as this is better suited to their type of breast tissue
or a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast and helps identify any changes in the breast tissue, particularly in women over 35 years
If either of these locate an abnormality in your breast, the specialist may remove some fluid from the area, with the help of an ultrasound scan, in a process called fine needle aspiration. Alternatively, they may do a biopsy, which is where they remove a small sample of breast tissue to analyse in the laboratory. Armed with more information, they will let you know the findings and the next steps.
Treatment options for breast cancer range from surgically removing the lump or removing the breast, and either option can be accompanied by chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
You are fit for work with a breast lump but should prioritise seeing your doctor, even if this means taking time off work.
Read about: Breast pain
Read about: Breast cancer screening
Read about: Premenstrual syndrome
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