Breast lumps

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsBreast lumps

Finding a lump in the breast can cause anxiety because many people immediately assume it is breast cancer. This is not always the case. However, finding a mass in the breast is cause to see a doctor who can determine what the mass is and how to treat it.


Definition & Facts

Breast lumps are bumps, knots, masses, or an abnormal swelling in the breast that feels different from the actual breast tissue. By conducting self-examinations monthly, individuals can screen themselves for these abnormalities. A mass in the breast tissue is not always cancer. Lumps can be caused by many different things, and lumps in the breast tissue are usually not breast cancer.


Infections, injuries, benign growth, and cancer are all causes of lumps in the breast. Each occurs due to different circumstances. Here are some of the main causes:

  • Sometimes masses appear the week before a menstrual cycle occurs. Hormones cause many changes in the body. One of those changes is the feeling of soreness or tenderness in the breasts and sometimes small firm masses surface at this time. The masses should disappear quickly after the start of the menstrual cycle.
  • Infection can also cause knots in the breast. When mothers breast feed there is a possibility that mastitis, an abscess due to the growth of bacteria, can develop in the mammary glands. Mastitis can also occur in women who are not breastfeeding, but it is less common.
  • Breast cysts, small circular or oval shaped knots, can occur at any age. When pressed, they can be moved around within the breast tissue. They typically occur two weeks prior to starting a menstrual cycle and should disappear after the menstrual cycle begins.
  • Fibroadenoma are microscopic. They are benign and are described as feeling like marbles beneath the breast, not tender masses. There can be just one or a group of them.
  • If the breast incurs trauma, a fatty deposit called fat necrosis can occur. It is a benign mass that is usually painless. Sometimes the surrounding, external skin may look red or bruised.
  • Lipoma in the breast is a benign lesion. A tumor forms that is mostly comprised of fatty tissue making them soft and mobile when touched. These occur in both men and women.
  • Breast cancer causes lumps to form in the breast, but the vast majority of lumps in breast tissue are not breast cancer. It must be determined by a biopsy.

When to see a doctor

Some breast masses are painful while others cause no pain. Pain or no pain, if a mass is present a medical evaluation should be sought out to determine what the tissue is. If the breast lump is painful, a health care provider can help to find relief. Just because there is no pain involved with a breast lump does not mean that the breast lump is not serious.

Lumps caused by breast cancer tend to be painless. An evaluation is always needed, and a diagnosis can ease anxiety. If the lump is cancer, treatment can begin immediately. The sooner treatment is started on cancerous tissue, the better.

Doctors will want to have as much information about each person’s individual situation as possible. Some questions they might ask are:

  • Is the mass painful?
  • When did you first notice the mass?
  • Have you had masses in your breasts before?
  • When was your last menstrual cycle?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Is there any history of breast cancer or other breast issues in your family?
  • Have you had any trauma to your breasts?
  • Do you have discharge from your nipples?

Treatment & Therapy

There will be many steps and there may be multiple visits needed to determine what is causing the breast lumps. The first step will be a physical examination. Physical exams are not precise and are usually done to locate the lumps for further examination through a mammogram or ultrasound.

The mammogram or ultrasound gives a more in-depth look at the breast tissue. The doctor or clinic may also want to do a biopsy, or take a sample of the tissue to have tested further. After a doctor has diagnosed the breast mass in question a treatment or therapy can begin.

As mentioned above, some masses, those that occur before a menstrual cycle, disappear on their own. They require no treatment or therapy, just time.

If the breast lumps are caused by mastitis, which is an infection, doctors will usually prescribe an antibiotic. A warm compress or hot shower can also help to relieve pain.

Breast cysts are treated by draining the fluid in them. This is done by a doctor who uses a thin needle which is inserted into your breast. If the cysts refill, they can be drained again.

Fibroadenoma can only be seen through imaging. If they are not growing or changing shape, the doctor may just watch them through regular breast exams to make sure they are not breast cancer. If they do seem to be growing or changing shape, the doctor may recommend they be removed. This could involve removal of some of the surrounding breast tissue.

Fat necrosis typically heals in time, but if these bulges do not seem to be disappearing or if they get bigger, a doctor may want to remove it. An operation may also be requested if the biopsy hasn’t given enough information to confirm that it is fat necrosis.

Breast lipoma usually does not need to be removed. If a doctor wants to remove them it might be because they are large, to be certain it is lipoma, or because its location is causing other issues. For instance, it might be resting on a nerve.

Breast cancer will be treated on an individual basis. The most common treatments are radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, or bone-direct therapy.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

To prevent breast lumps and breast cancer it is important to be proactive and lead a healthy lifestyle. Here are some ways to be proactive:

  • Do not smoke
  • Eat a well-balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight
  • Moderate exercise
  • Limit hormone therapy
  • Limit imaging because of radiation exposure

Books about Breast cancer at