Breast lumps & changes

Most breast lumps are not cancerous. However, as 1 in 9 New Zealand women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, it's important to get any breast changes checked by your doctor.

Key points:

  1. Finding breast cancer when it is small improves the chances of treatment being successful.
  2. You can help find breast cancer by getting to know your breasts and being aware of any changes that are not normal for you. 
  3. Looking at your breasts in the mirror and feeling them while washing or dressing is important as you get older, especially after age 40. 
  4. Checking your breasts is recommended for all women, even if you are having mammograms.

What are breasts made of?

Your breasts are made up of the following:

  • milk glands made up of many milk sacs throughout the breast
  • milk ducts to carry milk to the nipple
  • fibrous tissue which covers and supports the whole breast
  • fatty tissue which gives the breast its shape and size.

In the breast, armpit and neck there are collections of lymph nodes. These are small glands, each about the size of a pea, which help your body fight infection. Your chest muscles and ribs lie beneath your breasts.

If you lie on your back and feel your breasts you may be able to feel your ribs, especially if you have small breasts.

You may notice that your breasts are slightly different in shape or size or that one is slightly higher than the other. If your breasts have always been like this, these differences are normal.

What if I have breast changes?

If you feel or see something in one breast which seems different from usual, check your other breast. If there is something in the same place in both breasts, your breasts are probably quite normal.

If you do not think it is normal for you, it is important to see your doctor and have it checked.

Normal breast changes

  • Periods – your breasts may increase in size just before your period. Tender lumps may also appear and last until about a week after.
  • Pregnancy – during pregnancy your breasts get bigger, become firmer and more tender. The area around the nipple usually becomes darker and small bumps may appear.
  • Menopause – milk glands get smaller and breast tissue loses strength and stretchiness at menopause. This causes breasts to sag and become softer. Your skin may also wrinkle.
  • The pill – if you take a contraceptive pill you might notice changes, such as pain, or tenderness, lumps and thickenings.
  • Breast pain – causes of breast pain can include cysts, a blocked duct or infection during breast feeding, and tenderness due to your period.
  • Breast lumpiness – this is very common from the age of 35 to 50 years. The lumpiness or thickening can be in a part of one breast or throughout both breasts. Some lumpy areas come and go over the years. Others are present for days or weeks. The lumpiness is often more obvious before your period and tends to become less or disappear after menopause.

Harmless breast lumps

All breast lumps should be checked by a doctor. Most breast lumps which develop before menopause are not cancerous (benign), but it is important to get any lumps checked to rule out cancer. Common benign lumps include:

  • Lipomas – these are lumps made up of fatty tissue and can be found anywhere on the body, just under the skin.
  • Cysts – these are fluid-filled sacs. You may have a single cyst or a number of different sized cysts. Your doctor may use a needle to remove the fluid.
  • Fibroadenomas – these lumps are smooth, hard and movable, rather like a marble dropped into the breast tissue. They are common in women aged 18 to 30.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is a harmful growth which starts in the breast tissue. It becomes more common as women grow older and usually occurs in women over the age of 40 years. 

Some breast changes that may be early signs of breast cancer include:

  • a lump or lumpiness
  • thickening of the tissue
  • nipple changes such as a blood-stained discharge from one nipple, a nipple becomes inverted, or rash
  • skin dimpling
  • a change in shape
  • a painful area
  • a rash or red marks which appear only on the breast.

Although these changes do not necessarily mean you have breast cancer, any breast change should be checked by a doctor.

Checks for cancer

There are several ways your doctor will check a breast lump or other change. The aim of these checks is to make sure you do not have breast cancer. In some cases your doctor will do these checks, and in others you will be referred to a hospital clinic or specialist.

What if cancer is found?

Treatment of breast cancer depends on the type of breast cancer, its size and position, whether it has spread, the woman's age and general health.

Read more about breast cancer 

Learn more

Breast changes NZ Breast Cancer Foundation
Breast lumps NHS Choices (UK)

Credits: Original material provided by the Cancer Society. Reviewed By: Health Navigator NZ Last reviewed: 01 Aug 2014