Breast Lumps in Teens: Are They Dangerous?
Teenage girls are usually frightened when they find a lump in their breast. And a girl’s parents can be even more panicked, rushing their daughter to the doctor to find out if she has breast cancer. Realistically speaking, breast cancer is nearly a statistical impossibility; so what causes breast lumps in teens?
Attention, teenage girls (and your parents): there’s very little chance that the lump you feel in your breast is breast cancer.
How little? Well, according to the government’s cancer statistics, women between the ages of 15 and 19 are diagnosed with breast cancer at a rate of .2 per 100,000 per year. That translates to two older teens in a million being diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. each year.
For younger teens (under age 15), the risk is even lower. There are so few under-15s diagnosed with breast cancer that they don’t show up in the statistics. That means fewer than 1 young teenage American girl in a million receives a breast cancer diagnosis in any particular year.
Cancer can be deadly. And it’s certainly scary. But for teens, you have to like the odds, right? They’re certainly better than the 1 in 28 breast cancer risk that older women face.
So now that we’ve put the unrealistic specter of cancer in its place – what about those breast lumps?
A lump found directly under the nipple is probably a “breast bud.” Breasts start their growth cycle during puberty by forming small, hard lumps. These breast buds can be painful in the short term; but as time passes, they soften and enlarge to become the main part of the mature breast.
Fibroadenomas and fibrocystic change
Both of these refer to a benign (non-cancerous) overgrowth of breast tissue. A girl may feel a hard, smooth lump; series of lumps; or cord-like growths. A girl feeling a less defined, “squishy” lump may be feeling a fluid-filled cyst.
These lumps are typically connected to the girls’ menstrual cycle, and may become larger and more pronounced, as well as sore or painful, during the week or so on either side of her period. If the lumps don’t increase in size, they’re probably nothing to worry about. If there’s detectable growth, though, it’s probably best to see a doctor to determine if there’s an infection present, or perhaps a cyst that needs draining.
An abscess or other infection can cause swelling; and in a confined space (like a milk duct) this swelling can feel like a lump. An infection is usually signaled by other symptoms: heat, pain, redness, or general breast swelling. There might even be fever connected with the infection. Girls with any of these symptoms should see a doctor ASAP for treatment.
Scar tissue from trauma
A soccer ball to the chest; a hard elbow from a roughhousing sibling; even a body piercing can cause interior scars that gradually harden, and may feel like a lump or thickening.
Even if you can’t remember having been struck a blow to the chest, scar tissue is possible. And while scar tissue can’t cause breast cancer, it can makes reading a mammogram more challenging, since scar tissue and tumors look alike on an x-ray.
Girls: protect your breasts from injury. Your pesky little brother socking you “just for fun” is NOT acceptable, nor is fist-fighting or other rough play that may injure your breasts.
When to see a doctor
Even though you know that that breast lump almost certainly isn’t cancer, it can be very comforting to have the fact confirmed by a doctor. If your doctor is concerned about the lump you feel, s/he’ll probably order an ultrasound, which is the fastest, easiest way to determine if the lump is solid (fibroadenoma, scar tissue) or liquid (cyst, infection).
If the doctor can’t determine via clinical exam and ultrasound what the lump is, s/he may want to play it safe and order a biopsy. Even then, though, there’s no cause for worry. Remember that initial statistic? Just two in a million American girls each year will be diagnosed with breast cancer. So it follows that all of the biopsies performed on all of America’s teenage girls each year are negative – save for those unlucky two that turn out to show cancer.
Accessed December 30, 2015. http://seer.cancer.gov/archive/csr/1975_2008/results_merged/sect_04_breast.pdf.
Lau, May. "Breast Masses in Adolescent Girls." Contemporary Pediatrics. July 1, 2010. Accessed December 30, 2015. http://contemporarypediatrics.modernmedicine.com/contemporary-pediatrics/news/modernmedicine/modern-medicine-feature-articles/breast-masses-adolescen?page=full.
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.