Breast Lumps

Any masses or swellings that can be felt in the breast tissue

  • Age, genetics, and lifestyle as risk factors depend on the cause

Breast lumps are a common problem. Many women notice generalized breast lumpiness, especially when the breasts enlarge during puberty and pregnancy and before menstruation. This generalized lumpiness is a variation in normal breast development and does not increase the risk of breast cancer. A single, discrete breast lump may cause concern, but in fact only about 1 in 10 breast lumps is due to cancer.

What are the causes?

Generalized lumpiness, often associated with breast tenderness, is thought to be related to the hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle. The lumpiness usually becomes worse just before a period; the worsening may be due to oversensitivity of the breast tissue to female sex hormones at this time.

A discrete lump is often a fibroadenoma. This noncancerous lump is caused by overgrowth of one or more breast lobules (the structures that produce milk). Breast cysts are fluid-filled sacs in the breast tissue. There may be one or more cysts, and both breasts may be affected. Sometimes, a breast lump is caused by an infection that has developed into an abscess. A breast abscess may develop if mastitis is not treated, and may be associated with inflammation and localized pain. A lump may also be a symptom of breast cancer.

What might be done?

You should become familiar with the appearance and feel of your breasts so that you can recognize any changes (see Breast awareness). Consult your doctor promptly if you notice a new lump, a change in an existing lump, or any other change described in the box.

Your doctor will probably give you a physical examination and refer you to a breast clinic. At the clinic you will usually undergo a triple assessment: examination by a doctor; breast imaging by ultrasound scanning and/or mammography; and fine-needle aspiration and/or a core biopsy of the lump. In a fine-needle aspiration, a sample of cells is taken and examined microscopically for cancerous cells. In a core biopsy a sample of tissue is taken and examined for cancerous cells.

Generalized breast lumpiness tends to decrease after the menopause but may continue if you take hormone replacement therapy. Most noncancerous lumps do not need treatment, although breast cysts usually need to be drained. Modern screening techniques and treatment means that breast cancer can often be diagnosed early and treated successfully. If a breast tumour is found, further treatment will be planned.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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