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Breast Cysts vs. Cancer: What to Do if You Feel a Lump

Breast surgeon Dr. Susanna Nazarian discusses maintaining breast health, new breast masses and why it’s important to keep up with regular screening mammograms.

Editor’s note: This article has been reviewed for accuracy from an earlier version posted in November 2021.

It can be scary to feel an abnormal lump in your breast. The good news is, many breast lumps are benign—or non-cancerous—especially for those who have recently had a screening mammogram.

Still, it’s important to continue monitoring your breast health and keep your healthcare providers up to date with any changes or developments. Here’s what to know about breast lumps and what to do when you feel one.

Types of Breast Lumps

When it comes to masses in the breast, some may be cancerous, although many are benign. The two most common types of benign lumps are cysts and fibroadenomas. “Cysts can occur throughout the body,” says breast surgeon Dr. Susanna Nazarian. “They are fluid-filled sacs that can be uncomfortable or painful in some instances, but are generally asymptomatic.” Cysts are benign and don’t need to be removed or treated unless you’re experiencing discomfort—in which case, they can be drained with a needle or removed completely via surgery.

A fibroadenoma is a smooth, round mass that feels like a marble. “These masses are usually found in younger people and are usually benign,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Some people may choose to have fibroadenomas removed, especially if they are large, over two cm, growing, appear irregular on breast imaging, or cause discomfort. A breast surgeon can help evaluate whether these lesions, which are usually benign, should be removed surgically.”

New breast masses should usually be biopsied. “One in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime,” Dr. Nazarian says. “Screening allows us to detect cancers at an earlier stage, allowing a much higher chance of cure.  Fortunately, breast cancer is a very treatable disease in most cases.”

What to Do if You Feel a Lump

If you feel a lump in your breast, the first thing you should do is reach out to your primary care provider or OB/GYN. Though many masses are benign, your provider will likely recommend breast imaging, including a mammogram or ultrasound, and a biopsy, if necessary. [Editor’s Note: Learn how to perform a breast self-exam here and check out the Tiktok below.]

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The Importance of Screening

Getting mammograms regularly is as important as monitoring your own breast health. “Annual screening mammograms should start at age 40 for someone who is of average risk,” says Dr. Nazarian. “And those who have a strong family history or a gene mutation predisposing them to breast cancer may need to start earlier than age 40, depending on the recommendation of your individual provider.”

Dr. Nazarian shares that most malignancies can be found via mammogram or ultrasound before you’re able to feel them. “If you can feel a lump that turns out to be cancerous, it may be more advanced, which is why it’s so important to get your regular screening—there’s a higher rate of success in treating early-stage cancers.”

If you’re concerned about a lump in your breast, or you’re unsure when you should get screened for breast cancer, reach out to your primary care provider or OB/GYN. “Screening saves lives,” says Dr. Nazarian.

[Main photo credit: stefanamer/ iStock/ Getty Images Plus via Getty Images]

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From the Experts, Healthy You