Maybe it happened in the shower. Or during an intimate moment with your partner. You could have been putting on lotion before bed. And there it is—a breast lump. Finding one is understandably anxiety-provoking for women.
But before you jump to conclusions, stop and breathe.
Although the most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass, many breast lumps are either benign (noncancerous) or a symptom of a condition unrelated to cancer. So how do you tell the difference, and will it disappear on its own?
Often, lumps or breast pain are benign. So take a deep breath and consider the following:
New breast lumps in women who have not gone through menopause are commonly benign. Examples include cysts, fibrocystic breast tissue or other benign tumors; however, cancer can develop in young women, so a new lump should not be ignored. New lumps in women who have gone through menopause are more concerning and should be evaluated as soon as possible.
Although cancer can be painful, more often it is painless. If your breasts are painful or if you have a tender lump, it’s likely related to cysts or hormones. If the pain persists for more than a few weeks, see a doctor.
Most nipple discharge is noncancerous, but new, bloody or spontaneous nipple discharge (meaning it drains out without squeezing) should be checked out promptly.
Skin or nipple changes
If you notice changes in your nipple or breast skin such as nipple retraction, dimpling, swelling or puckering (looks like an orange peel), call your doctor.
Visit Your Doctor
Since all women do not experience the same symptoms of breast cancer, it’s important to get checked by your primary care physician or gynecologist, who will perform a physical exam to evaluate the breast lump or mass.
Whether you think the lump is cancerous or not, call your doctor within a week or two. Since all women do not experience the same symptoms of breast cancer, it’s important to get checked by your primary care physician or gynecologist, who will perform a physical exam to evaluate the breast lump or mass.
During the clinical breast exam, your doctor may recommend a mammogram or an ultrasound. Dr. Eddleman says imaging will reveal whether the breast lump is solid or fluid-filled, and furthermore identify whether the breast lump has benign or possibly malignant characteristics. Depending on the results, your doctor may suggest a biopsy of the area or refer you to a breast specialist.
Keep Doing (or Start Doing) Self-Exams
Despite ongoing debates about the effectiveness of breast self-exams, Dr. Eddleman suggests women conduct an exam every one to two months. Here’s how to do it:
- Attempt to flatten the breast tissue as much as possible with your arm up over your head.
- Make sure you feel all of the breast tissue, including under the arm.
- Take note of anything that feels different, including breast lumps and pain.
There’s value in doing regular self-exams because you get to know your breasts, their irregularities and how they feel, Dr. Eddleman says. “When you feel something different, you’ll know it.”
Remember: Mammograms Save Lives
In recent years, there’s been growing debate about the best age to start getting mammograms and how often. General guidelines are geared toward average-risk women who are not obese, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol daily and have no family history of breast cancer, Dr. Eddleman says. But it’s important to keep in mind that many women do not have average risk.
Dr. Eddleman recommends women start annual clinical breast exams and mammograms at age 40. Mammograms save lives, he says, and finding a malignancy on a mammogram rather than by touch can help treat cancer sooner, before it spreads.
“That’s when you want it diagnosed, when you can see it on a mammogram and you can’t feel it, because that means it’s usually small,” he says. “The smaller it is, the more treatable and more successful the treatment is.”
We offer mammography screenings and comprehensive breast services at several locations across the Triangle. Learn more about our programs at the UNC Breast Center in Chapel Hill and the UNC REX Comprehensive Breast Care Program in Wake County.
David Eddleman, MD, is a breast surgeon and medical director of breast surgery at REX Breast Care Specialists, with locations in Raleigh, Cary and Wakefield.