Breast lumps

Published: 16th April 2009
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What are breast lumps?

Breast lumps are either benign (harmless) or cancerous lumps of tissue in the breast.

What causes breast lumps and who is at risk?

The more common benign breast lumps include:

lumps caused by fibroadenosis, an overgrowth of breast tissue also known as 'mammary dysplasia', meaning a growth abnormality of the breast; this condition occurs particularly at times of hormonal change in the teens and between the ages of 40 and 60 years;

cysts, which occur only before the menopause; for example, a galactocoele is a milk-containing cyst that grows only during pregnancy;

fibroadenomas, which are most common in women in their twenties.

Breast cancer

In her lifetime, each woman in the UK has an overall one in 12 chance of developing breast cancer, the chances being greatest in old age. Risk factors that may be associated with developing breast cancer are:

having your first period early in life;

having a late menopause;

not having children;

having your first child at a late age;

long-term use of the contraceptive pill;

What are the common symptoms and complications of breast lumps?

It is usually the woman or her partner, rather than the doctor, who first notices the lump.

Benign breast lumps

Many women with fibroadenosis have a generalised lumpiness or thickening of both breasts rather than a single, well-defined lump.The upper outer quarter of the breast is the area most affected. The lumps caused by fibroadenosis can be tender or painful, and they may shrink and disappear altogether.

Cysts tend to appear suddenly and grow quickly.

Benign lumps can usually be moved around inside the breast tissue. This is particularly true of a fibroadenoma.

Breast cancer

Cancerous lumps are often hard and irregular in shape, and can be attached firmly to the breast tissue or the chest muscles beneath, which makes them difficult to move.

Wrinkling or pitting of the skin may appear over the lump. There may also be lumps in the armpit, which are enlarged lymph nodes.

Breast cancer can cause a discharge from the nipple, which may be blood-stained, or the nipple may be drawn inwards.

It can also spread outside the breast to the liver, lungs and brain, where it can cause serious illness or death.

What is the treatment for breast lumps?

Self-care action plan

The two most important factors in detecting breast cancer early are:

Being 'breast aware' simply means being on the lookout for any changes in your breast - any lumps, thickening, skin changes or nipple discharge - and reporting them to your doctor immediately.

The NHS breast screening programme offers mammography to all women aged 50 to 64 years every three years, whether they have lumps or not. You may also make use of the BUPA Health Screening facilities for regular mammograms.s.


Breast cancer is nearly always treated with surgery, either removal of the lump or removal of the breast (mastectomy), depending on the size and nature of the cancer. This may be followed by radiotherapy (cancer-killing X-rays) and chemotherapy (cancer-killing drugs).

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