Breast Lumps: an Overview

Patient Expert

_You feel a new lump in your breast. Now what? Advice on next steps. _

Discovering a lump

The first step in determining whether that lump you feel in your breast might be problematic to know what your breasts feel like normally.

While the monthly breast self-exam can't hurt, it's no longer the recommended method for discovering lumps. Instead, the American Cancer Society recommends simply knowing your breasts, and being aware of any changes. Most women report that going over their breasts daily, in the shower, is the easiest way to notice any change.

If you feel something in your breast - a lump, a thickening, swelling - that feels different than usual, keep your eye on it. It could very well be connected to your menstrual cycle, when hormones can cause physical changes in the breast.

If the lump or thickness remains after a couple of weeks, however, it's best to call the doctor. And if you're postmenopausal, consider calling the doctor right away, since the lump can't be related to your (nonexistent) menstrual cycle.

Distinguishing new lumps from "normal" lumps

Every woman develops her own definition of normal breast tissue. Many of us have naturally lumpy breasts, ranging from tiny hard lumps, to large soft lumps, and everything in between. Learn to feel what's normal for YOU.

And normal doesn't necessarily mean "exactly the same every day." It means over the course of your menstrual cycle, if you're premenopausal. You probably notice changes during your period, when your breasts may suddenly become full and a bit painful, or just "feel" different than they do during the rest of the month. That's normal. It's when your breasts don't follow their usual behavior that you should pay attention.

If you're postmenopausal, you"�re used to your breasts remaining fairly static week in and week out. So if a lump suddenly appears, it's worth having it checked out. Especially since the incidence of breast cancer increases as you age.

Bottom line:  Identify and internalize what's normal for you, so that if something abnormal happens, you'll notice it.

A new lump: next steps

You've discovered a new lump in your breast, and you don't think it's hormonal - what should you do next?

Fist, don't panic. In premenopausal women, only 1 in 12 "dominant lumps" (that is, lumps that stand out enough to be discovered) is malignant.

In postmenopausal women, whose breasts aren't constantly changing due to their period, the chance that a discovered lump is malignant rises to 50-50. But that risk is mitigated by the fact that post-menopausal women are much less likely to discover a lump in their breast than women still menstruating, who are very much more likely to develop usually harmless cysts in their breasts.

Bottom line: If you discover a new lump, be concerned. But understand that it doesn€™t automatically mean you have cancer.

Getting a second opinion

You know what your breasts feel like. You've found a lump that shouldn't be there. When you see the doctor, s/he said it feels like a cyst, and not to worry about it. But you're still worried. What should you do?

Get a second opinion. Or insist on further examination: a mammogram or ultrasound, for instance. This is a fine line: how much do you question your doctor? S/he knows what she's talking about, right? Yes, but YOU know your own body, as well as your own emotional capacity for stress. The words "better safe than sorry" are never truer than when applied to cancer.

More helpful articles:

A Guide to Breast Cancer Symptoms

Just Diagnosed? We Can Help

Breast Biopsy FAQS

Fast FAQS: Armpit Lumps

Breast Cancer Fears: What Are You Afraid Of?

Fibrocystic Change and Fibroadenomas

Breast Cancer Symptoms: When to Worry, When to Wait

10 Reasons You Probably Don't Have Breast Cancer

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.