Breast lumps in general
The first symptom of breast cancer for many women is a lump in their breast. But many women have breast lumps and 9 out of 10 (90%) are benign. That means they are not cancers.
Most benign breast lumps are
1. Areas of breast cell changes, causing lumpiness that is more obvious just before a period, particularly in women over 35 Cysts – sacs of fluid in the breast tissue, which are quite common
2. Fibroadenoma – a collection of fibrous glandular tissue (these are more common in younger women)
What to look out for
Changes that could be due to a breast cancer are
1. A lump or thickening in an area of the breast
2. A change in the size or shape of a breast
3. Dimpling of the skin
4. A change in the shape of your nipple, particularly if it turns in, sinks into the breast, or has an irregular shape
5. A blood stained discharge from the nipple
6. A rash on a nipple or surrounding area
7. A swelling or lump in your armpit
Like breast lumps, these signs don’t necessarily mean cancer. Inverted nipples, blood stained nipple discharge or a rash can all be due to other medical conditions. But if any of these things happen to you, you need to get it checked out. It is most likely to be a benign condition that can easily be treated and seeing the GP will put your mind at rest. But if it does turn out to be a cancer you give yourself the best chance of successful treatment by going to the doctor early on.
A rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer can have different symptoms. The whole breast can look red and inflamed and can be very sore. The breast may feel hard. The skin sometimes looks like orange peel because the pores stand out in the inflamed area.
Another rare type of breast cancer shows up as a rash on and around the nipple. It is called Paget’s disease. The red, scaly rash can be itchy. It looks a bit like eczema and is sometimes mistaken for that at first.
If you find a lump
See your doctor straight away. If you notice anything unusual about your breast, have it examined. Even though most breast lumps are benign, they need to be checked to rule out cancer. Our page about breast awareness shows how to learn what is normal for you.
Your doctor will examine you and if necessary will send you to a specialist breast clinic for further checks. At the clinic, they will be able to see on your mammogram or ultrasound if the lump is a fluid filled cyst or a solid lump.
If it is a cyst, the doctor or nurse may get rid of it by draining the fluid out through a fine needle. If it is a solid lump, they will stick a very fine needle into it and take a tissue sample to test for cancer cells.
Some women prefer to have benign lumps removed to stop them from worrying that it may be a cancer. They may be concerned that they will confuse the benign lumps with any other lumps they may get in the future. But if you and your doctor are confident that the lump is benign, you don’t have to have it removed if you don’t want to. Benign lumps don’t turn into cancer.
If your lump is a cancer, the earlier you have breast cancer treatment, the better your chance of cure.
Breast pain is very common and is not usually due to cancer. Many healthy women find that their breasts feel lumpy and tender before a period. And some benign breast lumps are painful. Many women get pain in their breasts for a while, which goes after a time. There may be no obvious reason for the pain, even with lots of tests. Most breast pain is not caused by cancer, but some breast cancers do cause pain, so if you are worried, see your GP.
Breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells. To better understand breast cancer, it helps to understand how any cancer can develop. Cancer occurs as a result of mutations, or abnormal changes, in the genes responsible for regulating the growth of cells and keeping them healthy. The genes are in each cell’s nucleus, which acts as the “control room” of each cell. Normally, the cells in our bodies replace themselves through an orderly process of cell growth: healthy new cells take over as old ones die out. But over time, mutations can “turn on” certain genes and “turn off” others in a cell. That changed cell gains the ability to keep dividing without control or order, producing more cells just like it and forming a tumor.
A tumor can be benign (not dangerous to health) or malignant (has the potential to be dangerous). Benign tumors are not considered cancerous: their cells are close to normal in appearance, they grow slowly, and they do not invade nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors are cancerous. Left unchecked, malignant cells eventually can spread beyond the original tumor to other parts of the body.
The term “breast cancer” refers to a malignant tumor that has developed from cells in the breast. Usually breast cancer either begins in the cells of the lobules, which are the milk-producing glands, or the ducts, the passages that drain milk from the lobules to the nipple. Less commonly, breast cancer can begin in the stormily tissues, which include the fatty and fibrous connective tissues of the breast.
Over time, cancer cells can invade nearby healthy breast tissue and make their way into the underarm lymph nodes, small organs that filter out foreign substances in the body. If cancer cells get into the lymph nodes, they then have a pathway into other parts of the body. The breast cancer’s stage refers to how far the cancer cells have spread beyond the original tumor.
Breast cancer is always caused by a genetic abnormality (a “mistake” in the genetic material). However, only 5-10% of cancers are due to an abnormality inherited from your mother or father. About 90% of breast cancers are due to genetic abnormalities that happen as a result of the aging process and the “wear and tear” of life in general.
There are steps every person can take to help the body stay as healthy as possible and lower risk of breast cancer or a breast cancer recurrence (such as maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, limiting alcohol, and exercising regularly).
Always remember, breast cancer is never anyone’s fault. Feeling guilty, or telling yourself that breast cancer happened because of something you or anyone else did, is not productive.