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Benign breast lumps
Published by Bupa's health information team, June 2009.
This factsheet is for women who have a benign breast lump, or who would like information about them.
A breast lump is a swelling or localised thickening in the breast. Breast lumps are common. Nine out of 10 breast lumps are benign (not cancerous).
About your breasts
Your breasts are made up of fat, connective tissue, glandular tissue and ducts. The glandular tissue is organised in lobes that are connected to the nipple by ducts to produce and deliver milk if you have a baby.
A 'tail' of breast tissue extends under the skin of your armpit. Your armpits also contain a collection of lymph nodes. These are glands that are found throughout your body and are part of your immune system.
The structures of the breast
About benign breast lumps
There are many different types of benign breast lump. The most common are cysts (sacs of fluid that build up in the breast tissue) and fibroadenomas (solid growths made up of fibrous and glandular tissue). Sometimes normal parts of the breast can feel like a lump.
Symptoms of a benign breast lump
Most breast lumps aren't cancerous but see your GP if you find a lump in your breast, or have symptoms including:
a change in the size, shape or feel of your breasts (after you have gone through puberty)
dimpling, puckering or redness of your skin
lumpiness or thickening of your breast
a change in the appearance of your nipple
bloodstained discharge from your nipple
swelling or a lump in your armpit
Causes of a benign breast lump
Breast lumps have many causes and your GP may use one of the terms below to describe your lump.
Cysts - these are a common cause of breast lumps in women before the menopause. These lumps often appear suddenly and some women have several.
Fibroadenoma - another common cause of a breast lump, particularly in young women.
Abscess or inflammation - this is usually the result of an infection, although there can be other causes.
Periductal mastitis - inflammation and infection around the nipple area. This is found most commonly in smokers.
Fat necrosis - firm lumps that form in a damaged area of fatty breast tissue. This may be from a bruise or injury to your breast.
Hamartoma - excessive growth in a small area of normal breast tissue.
Lipoma - this is a fatty lump.
Papilloma - this is a growth inside a duct behind the nipple that is similar to a wart. These often develop naturally as you get older but can occasionally be associated with another condition (atypical hyperplasia) that can develop into breast cancer.
Phyllodes tumours - this is a growth in the breast that can be benign or malignant (cancerous).
Fibrocystic disease (fibroadenosis) - also called benign mammary change, this is thickening of otherwise normal breast tissue caused by overgrowth of fibrous tissue.
If you're pregnant
If you're pregnant, you may notice that your breasts become sore and tender. This is caused by the increase in progesterone (one of the female hormones) and growth of your milk ducts.
You may develop benign breast lumps such as cysts or fibroadenomas during pregnancy. Breast cancer is very rare during pregnancy but if you're aware of a definite localised lump or any of the other symptoms listed above, speak to your GP.
Diagnosis of a benign breast lump
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
If you have a breast lump, you will usually need to have further tests. Your GP may refer you to a doctor at a hospital or specialist breast clinic to have these tests. The tests you need will depend on your symptoms and age. Commonly used tests are listed below.
Ultrasound - an ultrasound uses sound waves to produce an image of the inside of part of your body.
A mammogram - an X-ray image of your breast.
Needle aspiration - your doctor will use a fine needle to collect a sample of cells from your breast. The sample will be sent to a laboratory for examination.
Biopsy - a biopsy is a small sample of tissue. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine the type of cells and if these are benign or malignant.
MRI scan - an MRI scan uses magnets and radiowaves to produce images of the inside of your body.
Treatment of a benign breast lump
You won't usually need treatment for small fibroadenomas, hamartomas or lipomas unless they are causing symptoms. However, other types of benign breast lump may require treatment.
Cysts can be drained (aspirated) with a fine needle and don't usually need further treatment. If you have a solid lump, you will usually have a biopsy taken with a needle to determine the treatment you need.
Large fibroadenomas, hamartomas and lipomas are removed to prevent them getting larger still. They will be examined in a laboratory to be certain of the diagnosis. Phyllodes lumps and papillomas are also always removed.
If you have an abscess or other infection, you will be given antibiotics. Abscesses may also be drained if there is a collection of pus.
Your doctor will advise which treatment is best for you.
There isn't much reliable evidence that lifestyle and diet changes will increase or decrease your chance of getting a benign breast lump. However, in the long-term, living a healthy lifestyle means you're less likely to get other diseases, including some cancers. Some benign lumps are more common in women taking the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Benign breast lumps Q&As
See our answers to common questions about benign breast lumps, including:
- Breast cancer symptoms. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerhelp.org.uk, accessed 7 April 2008
- Body awareness. Check your breasts for signs of breast cancer. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, accessed 7 April 2008
- Breast awareness. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, accessed 7 April 2008
- Benign breast conditions. Breast Cancer Care. www.breastcancercare.org.uk, accessed 7 April 2008
- Joint Formulary Committee, British National Formulary. 54th ed. London: British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, 2007:407-408
- NHS Breast Screening Programme. NHS. www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk, accessed 25 April 2008
- Screening for breast cancer in England: past and future. Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer Screening. NHS Breast Screening Programme, 2006, publication no 61. www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk
- Breast changes during and after pregnancy. Breast Cancer Care. 2007. www.breastcancercare.org.uk
- Personal communication, Mr R Douglas Macmillan, Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Nottingham Breast Institute, 2 March 2009
- Is ductal papilloma precancerous? Cancer Research UK. www.cancerhelp.org.uk, accessed 16 March 2009
- Breast cancer tests. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerhelp.org.uk, accessed 16 March 2009
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Publication date: June 2009