What to Do When You Find a Lump During a Breast Self-Examination

Understanding the next steps after finding a lump

Thoughtful young woman looking out the window with her hand resting on her chin.

Understanding the next steps after finding a lump

by Mary Wilde, MD, Breast Surgeon

It’s something we all know we should do. In additional to an annual mammogram screening, examining your breasts at least once a month is an important way to notice any changes in your breasts and report them to your doctor. Many of us try to do this around the same time each month.

But for many of us, what we should do if we find something is still an unknown. Read on to discover what to do if you find a lump.

Is this lump a sign of breast cancer?

If you discover a lump, your first thought might be that you have breast cancer. There’s no need to panic. Before you allow anxiety and worry to consume you, remember this: Many women’s breasts feel lumpy and most breast lumps are not cancerous. In fact, only one of out of every five lumps is cancerous.

You could have a cyst or tumor that is not cancerous. There are many benign lumps that we see in breasts. Noncancerous lumps sometimes appear when you’re menstruating and go away when your cycle ends.

Certain changes, or lumps, are more concerning than others. Be on the lookout for these warning signs of breast cancer:

  • Bloody or clear nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing the nipple
  • Breast dimpling or puckering
  • Swollen, red or warm breasts
  • Changes in size or shape
  • A hard knot or thickening in the underarm area or inside the breast
  • A scaly, itchy rash or sore on the nipple
  • Inversion (pulling inward) of the nipple or breast
  • Pain in one spot that doesn’t go away in two to three weeks

I found a lump — now what?

A lump or breast changes may be nothing to worry about. The only way to know for sure what’s going on is by seeing your health care provider. Your doctor may follow these steps to diagnose or rule out cancer:

  • Clinical breast exam: Your doctor visually examines your breasts for changes and checks for lumps or thickening by palpating (feeling) the deeper tissue in your breasts and armpits.
  • Diagnostic mammogram: This specialized mammogram provides views of the problem area from several angles and at a higher magnification than standard screenings. This helps pinpoint the lump’s location and size.
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the inside of your breast. These images show whether a breast lump is solid or fluid-filled. Solid masses are more likely to be cancerous.
  • Breast biopsy: Your doctor may remove a tissue sample of the lump to examine it under a microscope and check for cancerous cells. Only 20 percent of biopsied breast tissue turns out to be cancer.

Follow-up care after you’ve found a lump

If test results indicate that your lump isn’t cancerous, your doctor may recommend having another clinical breast exam or diagnostic mammogram in a few months to check for any changes. You may still need surgery to remove a benign, noncancerous lump.

Should the lump turn out to be cancerous, you and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan. Treatment options vary depending on the stage and type of breast cancer.

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about genetic tests for breast cancer gene mutations.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by Mary Wilde, MD, a breast surgeon at Scripps Clinic in San Diego. Learn more about breast care at Scripps .