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Breast Cancer Lump Vs Cyst

What Is A Breast Cyst

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Breast cysts form when theres a build-up of fluid. There may be a connection between cysts and fluctuating hormone levels, but the exact cause isnt clear.

These round or oval fluid-filled sacs are fairly common. This is particularly true among people in their 40s who were assigned female at birth.

Cysts can be so small that you cant feel or see them without breast imaging. Sometimes, they can grow quite large .

Symptoms may vary in severity during your menstrual cycle and may include:

Cysts can be simple, complex, or complicated:

  • Simple cysts. These cysts have smooth borders, thin walls, and are totally filled with fluid. Theyre always benign. Cysts that form due to fibrocystic changes are simple cysts.
  • Complex cysts. Unlike simple cysts, complex cysts have irregular borders, thick walls, and some solid matter within the fluid. Most are benign.
  • Complicated cysts. These cysts are somewhere in between simple and complex. They dont have thick walls, but they may have some solid matter within the fluid. Most are benign.

A tumor of the breast is a solid mass that can be cancerous or noncancerous.

Breast Surgeon Dr Susanna Nazarian Discusses Maintaining Breast Health New Breast Masses And Why Its Important To Keep Up With Regular Screening Mammograms

Editors 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 benignor non-cancerousespecially for those who have recently had a screening mammogram.

Still, its important to continue monitoring your breast health and keep your healthcare providers up to date with any changes or developments. Heres 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 dont need to be removed or treated unless youre experiencing discomfortin which case, they can be drained with a needle or removed completely via surgery.

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

Cancer Tumors Versus Cysts And Fibroadenomas

Cysts, which are fluid-filled lumps, are common in the breast and are benign. They form when fluid builds up inside breast glands and tend to be smooth or round. Fibroadenomas, which are benign tumors made up of glandular and connective breast tissue, are usually smooth and firm or rubbery to the touch. Both of these conditions tend to affect younger women fibroadenomas are most common in women in their 20s and 30s, and cysts are most common in women under 40.

Despite these common descriptions, it is impossible to tell by touch whether a lump is cancer.

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Breast Lump Causes And Types: Cyst Vs Tumor

Imagine youre living your life, taking care of your health, getting the recommended screening mammograms and periodically performing breast self-checks, and you notice a lump. How worried should you be?

In most circumstances, a situation like this means its time to make an appointment with your healthcare provider but know that not every lump and bump you feel in your breast is a tumor.

How Do You Know If Its A Breast Cyst Vs A Tumor

Fibroadenoma tumor cyst world breast cancer day Vector Image

Many breast lumps are cysts fluid-filled sacs that commonly occur and are considered a normal fibrocystic change in the breast. Cysts can form in the thin walls of the breasts soft tissues as a result of hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle. Women can develop cysts at any age, but theyre typically seen in late menstruation years or during menopause if youre taking hormone replacement therapy. Cysts are classified as:

  • Simple, meaning cysts contains only fluid
  • Complicated, meaning the cysts include debris in the fluid
  • Complex cystic and solid mass, meaning cysts have some solid components or walls that are thick

Most of the time, cysts are harmless, but they may feel the same to the touch as benign tumors or malignant tumors. Complex cystic and solid mass cysts have a higher risk of being cancerous. For these reasons, its important to seek a diagnosis if you find a lump.

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What Are Some Common Types Of Benign Breast Lumps

There are many possible causes of non-cancerous breast lumps. Two of the most common causes of benign single breast lumps are cysts and fibroadenomas. In addition, several other conditions can present themselves as lumps, such as fat necrosis and sclerosing adenosis. Only your healthcare provider can diagnose your breast lump.

Breast Cysts And Breast Cancer: How Can You Tell The Difference

Many women will experience a breast cyst at some point in their lives. Though they tend to be more common among women between the ages of 30 and 50, breast cysts can develop at any age.

So, what causes breast cysts? Is there any way to treat them? And how do you tell if a lump is breast cancer or just a cyst?

We went to breast surgical oncologist Ana Paula Correa Refinetti, M.D., for answers.

What are breast cysts?

Cysts are just fluid-filled sacs. The lining of the cyst produces fluid, which fills up the space, almost like a balloon.

Are there different types of breast cysts?

Yes. The vast majority fall into one of three categories.

  • Simple: These cysts look like balls filled with fluid.
  • Complicated: These cysts have little septations or membranes that divvy up the areas inside of them and create small pockets or chambers. Sometimes, they can also have debris on the bottom that looks like sand.
  • Complex: This is just a step up from complicated. It could indicate the cysts have more solid parts, or that the walls or membranes are thicker.

Microcysts, which are tiny little painless cysts scattered throughout the breast tissue, fall into the simple category.

Why do breast cysts form?

Breast cysts usually happen due to the normal hormonal fluctuations that take place in a womans body during her menstrual cycle. Thats why theyre most common among women who are still of child-bearing age. Only a small proportion of breast cysts occurs in post-menopausal women.

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Detecting Breast Cancer Earlier

Breast cancer cant usually be prevented, but you can take three important steps to help detect it earlier. The free resource, 3 Steps to Early Detection, can increase your chance of finding breast cancer before it spreads.

Tell us where we can send you your copy.

Materials on this page provided by: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Medically Reviewed on April 15, 2020

Breast Lumps: Why Size Movability And Pain Matter

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Your breasts are made up of fat, nerves, blood vessels, fibrous connective tissue, and glandular tissue, as well as an intricate system of milk-producing lobules , and ducts . This anatomy in and of itself creates a lumpy, uneven terrain.

A lump in the breast distinguishes itself from this background of normal irregularities. Harmless breast lumps can be solid and unmovable, like a dried bean or movable, soft, and fluid-filled you can roll it between your fingers like a grape. A lump may be pea-size, smaller than a pea, or even several inches across, although this larger size is rare.

What typically differentiates a benign breast lump from a cancerous breast lump is movement. That is, a fluid-filled lump that rolls between the fingers is less likely to be cancerous than a hard lump in your breast that feels rooted in place.

Another rule of thumb has to do with pain. Breast cancer does not usually cause pain. Benign conditions sometimes do, although there are exceptions to this rule as well. For instance, a rare form of breast cancer, inflammatory breast cancer, may cause symptoms such as aching, tenderness, pain, or burning in the breast.

The only way to know the status of a lump for sure is through medical tests, such as an ultrasound, a mammogram, or a fine needle aspiration , in which your doctor uses a tiny needle to extract a bit of the lump for laboratory examination.

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Causes Of Breast Lumps

Lumps in the breasts can have lots of different causes.

They’re often caused by something harmless like a non-cancerous tissue growth or a build-up of fluid .

Breast Cancer Now has more information about fibroadenoma and breast cysts.

Sometimes, a breast lump can be a sign of something serious like breast cancer.

Can Cysts Turn Into Cancer

If you have a cyst in your body, the chance of it being cancer is extremely low.

There are only a few known cases of cysts turning into cancer, says Dr. Isakov. The overwhelming majority of cysts are harmless. But if its causing you pain or it gets infected, we can remove them.

If you or your healthcare provider feels a lump in your breast, the next step typically involves imaging of the lump through a mammogram and ultrasound. If the radiologist sees a cyst, rest easy.

Cysts in the breasts are benign, says Dr. Shepardson. They dont turn into cancer, and they dont increase your risk of getting breast cancer. In fact, we usually leave cysts alone unless they are causing symptoms like pain or they are getting large, in which case we can use a needle to remove the fluid.

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Tests Used To Diagnose Breast Cancer

Your doctor will likely do a physical exam and may suggest some other diagnostic tests, if they cant determine what the lump is from touch alone. Sometimes a biopsy is needed, along with certain imaging tests to make an accurate diagnosis. These are some of the most common tests used to determine whether a lump may be cancerous:

  • Breast biopsy: Biopsies are performed in several ways: taking a sample of breast tissueor surgically removing the breast lump itself and testing it in a lab under a microscope. The type of biopsy recommended may depend on how concerned your doctor is about your cancer risk.
  • Mammogram: A mammogram uses X-ray images of the breast from different angles to see more details of the lump.
  • Breast ultrasound: This type of imaging uses sound waves to tell if the lump is solid or fluid-filled. Tumors are solid, whereas breast cysts are a type of fluid-filled mass.
  • Breast MRI: An MRI test produces an image with radio waves and a magnet that is often used when more information is needed to make a diagnosis.

What Does A Breast Lump Feel Like

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In general, cancerous breast lumps tend to be more irregular in shape. They may also feel firm or solid, and might be fixed to the tissue in the breast. They are also often painless. However, in a small percentage of women, a painful breast lump turns out to be cancer.

Breast cancer lumps can vary in size. Typically, a lump has to be about one centimeter before a person can feel it however, it depends on where the lump arises in the breast, how big the breast is, and how deep the lesion is.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women, but most breast lumps are not cancer.

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What Does A Tumor Feel Like Under The Skin

Lumps, tumors, and all sorts of things one can feel in the breast can feel surprisingly similar: firm, as opposed to the normal, more spongy tissue of the breast. They are often irregularly shaped as opposed to a sphere or ball shape. Lumps are also usually mobile within the breast and can be moved around within the breast.

However, its important to note that this can vary from person to person. Ultimately, anytime you feel something thats different from what your normal breast tissue feels like, or if you notice anything that generally feels unusual, you should speak to her medical team about that.

Treatment For Cysts And Tumors Depends On Several Factors

Location, cause, and whether its cancerous all help determine next steps.

Most cysts dont require treatment. They typically dont cause any symptoms and may go away on their own. But this can depend on where the cyst is located. If a cyst hurts or you dont like the way it looks, some options are removing it or draining its fluid.

You can usually let a benign tumor be, unless it is pressing on a vital organ and is interrupting its functionthen it may need to be removed. Cancerous tumors generally require treatment with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these and other therapies.

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How To Perform A Male Self

A person can perform the following steps:

  • Stand in front of a mirror with the arms at the hips. Tighten the chest muscles and check for any changes, including dimpling, swelling, or inverted nipples.
  • Raise the arms above the head and continue looking for breast changes.
  • Using the fingertip, move around the breast and armpit area in a circular motion to check for lumps.
  • Check the nipple for any discharge.
  • Complete this check for both sides.
  • Breast Cancer Screening At Msk

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    A physical exam alone cannot reliably distinguish a benign lump in the breast from a suspicious one. Thankfully, there are many options for screening:

    • A 3-D mammogram offers a detailed look at the breast in slices almost like a photo flipbook so doctors can get a very detailed picture. 3D allows us to see cancers through dense breast tissue.
    • An ultrasound uses sound waves to see lumps. It can distinguish between solid and cystic masses.
    • A contrast mammogram and an MRI both show if the lump has blood flow. Cancers typically have increased blood supply.

    At MSK, we offer breast cancer screening services and programs for people at all levels of risk, with or without a history of cancer. MSKs breast cancer screening guidelines recommend that most women get a mammogram every year beginning at age 40, with annual mammography beginning earlier for women at a high risk for breast cancer.

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    Always Seek Medical Attention

    The key point is that anybody should seek medical attention for any concerning lumps in their breasts, says Harold Burstein, MD, PhD, a breast oncologist with the Susan F. Smith Center.

    Simple imaging techniques, such as a mammogram or breast ultrasound, can usually provide reassurance that the breast lump is benign. If necessary, a breast MRI or biopsy can be used to evaluate whether the lump is cancerous.

    Diagnosing And Treating Breast Cancer At Ctca

    Finding a breast lump can be scary. That’s why, when confirming whether a lump is cancer, many women choose to seek out a breast cancer expert who can provide answers with the sense of urgency and commitment to accuracy they deserve.

    Many patients come to CTCA for a breast cancer diagnosisand for second opinionsbecause of our expert, comprehensive cancer care. We only treat cancer at CTCA, and our Breast Cancer Centers recognize the value in dedicating a multidisciplinary team of experts to a specific cancer type, especially one as complex as breast cancer.

    At the Breast Cancer Centers at each of our CTCA hospitals, located across the nation, our cancer experts are devoted to a single missiontreating breast cancer patients with compassion and precision. Each patients care team is led by a medical oncologist and coordinated by a registered oncology nurse, who helps track the various appointments, follow up on tests and answer questions that come up along the way. Your care team also may include a breast surgeon, radiation oncologist, radiologist, pathologist and a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with advanced training in helping patients restore function and appearance. Fertility preservation and genetic testing are also available for qualifying patients who need them.

    No matter where you decide to go to assess your breast lump, while researching your options, look for a facility and a care team with the expertise you need and the credentials you trust.

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    Diagnosis Of A Breast Cyst

    Diagnosis of a breast cyst usually involves a breast exam, imaging tests , and possibly a breast biopsy.

    • Breast exam your doctor will physically examine the breast lump and check the breast for other abnormalities. However, cysts cannot be reliably diagnosed by physical exam alone. You may need another test, such as an imaging test or a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
    • Mammogram breast cysts are often found during routine mammograms to screen for breast cancer. On a mammogram, they can sometimes be seen as a smooth round mass in the breast tissue.
    • Ultrasound this imaging test helps your doctor to see if the lump is solid or filled with fluid. If the lump is filled with fluid, this usually indicates a cyst . Simple cysts are not usually a cause of concern. However, if the lump is solid or has a combination of solid and fluid components , your doctor may recommend a biopsy to ensure the lump is not cancerous.
    • Breast biopsy Because solid lumps could indicate breast cancer, your doctor may recommend doing a biopsy, such as a fine-needle aspiration . During a fine-needle aspiration, a thin, hollow needle attached to a syringe is inserted into the breast lump to withdraw fluid and tissue. This is often done with an ultrasound to guide accurate placement of the needle. A local anaesthetic may be used to numb the area where the needle will be inserted. A sample of the fluid may be sent to a pathologist to confirm the diagnosis.


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