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What Does a Breast Cancer Lump Feel Like?

Contributor: Amy Comander, MD
7 minute read
A healthcare provider speaks to a female patient

Breast self-examination and body awareness are important to your health and wellness. But if you notice a lump or change in your breasts, don’t panic. Most turn out to be benign (noncancerous) issues.

Amy Comander, MD, an oncologist, encourages people to check their breasts regularly and understand what to look for in their own unique bodies. Dr. Comander is medical director of the Mass General Cancer Center at Mass General Waltham and director of the Breast Oncology Program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

“Every person’s breast tissue will feel different. Many people do have lumps in their breasts, and that can sometimes change with their menstrual cycle. The majority of breast lumps are actually benign,” she says. “But it’s important that we are aware of our own bodies, so if we notice a change, we know what to do about it. The breast self-exam is another tool we can use to take charge of our own health.”

If you notice a lump, Dr. Comander suggests you consider several specific factors, such as shape, size, whether there is skin involvement, and whether the lump causes pain. But if you have any doubt or questions, make an appointment for a physical exam and mammogram.

Factors to consider if you notice a lump in breast tissue

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding and anxiety about performing a breast self-exam. People don't really know what they’re looking for, and they’re afraid they’ll find something that will make them panic,” Dr. Comander says. She describes several important characteristics to consider about your breast tissue.

Skin changes

Look for any skin changes on or around the breasts, such as:

  • Bulging
  • Dimpling
  • Puckering
  • Redness or rash
  • Soreness
  • Swelling
  • Thickening or scaling

Many things can cause skin changes, including infections, eczema, and allergies. So these symptoms are not necessarily signs of breast cancer. But it’s important to seek medical attention if you notice them, Dr. Comander says.


Most breast tumors do not hurt, although some might. Pain in the breasts may indicate an ingrown hair, clogged milk duct, cyst, swollen gland, or other issue.

Shape and size of a breast lump

A tumor may feel more like a rock than a grape. A cancerous lump is usually hard, not soft or squishy. And it often has angular, irregular, asymmetrical edges, as opposed to being smooth, Dr. Comander says. In order for you to feel a cancerous lump, it probably has to be rather large and closer to the surface of the skin. It’s harder to feel breast tumors smaller than a centimeter in diameter.

“Most breast cancers in the United States are detected by mammograms, and they’re usually quite small. We like it that way—when we pick up cancers when they’re tiny, we can have a better chance of curing our patients and using less aggressive treatments to achieve that,” she says.

breast cancer diagram


If you detect a lump in your breast, Dr. Comander suggests trying to move it around. “If something is more fixed in place, that would be more of a concern, as opposed to a lumpy area that is more mobile,” she explains. For example, a lump that changes location or feels different when you push it around, raise your arm, or lie down is less likely to be a tumor.

We should be aware of our own bodies and what our breast tissue feels like. That way, if at some point you identify a lump or bump in your breast, you’ll know if it’s new, then you can report it to a health care provider.

Amy Comander, MD
Medical Oncologist
Mass General Cancer Center

Importance of breast self-examination

Medical experts often debate the value of breast self-exam in detecting breast cancer early. But Dr. Comander has seen its usefulness in her own patients.

“Many of my patients did identify a lump in their breast which led to their diagnosis. So I do think breast self-exam is important,” she says. “We should be aware of our own bodies and what our breast tissue feels like. That way, if at some point you identify a lump or bump in your breast, you’ll know if it’s new, then you can report it to a health care provider.”

However, she says nothing replaces a mammogram. Regular mammography is the most effective tool to detect breast cancer.

How to do a breast self-exam

Dr. Comander offers these step-by-step instructions for breast self-examination:

  1. Pick a specific day to conduct the exam every month. Examples include the first or last day of every month, or the same number as your birthday. Don’t choose a day too close to your menstrual cycle, as hormones can affect the way your breasts feel.
  2. Remove your shirt and bra, then look at your breasts in the mirror. Notice whether they are the usual size, shape, color, and symmetry. Look for any changes in your skin, nipples, or overall breasts.
  3. Raise your arm over your head and look again. Don’t forget to look under your breasts and in your armpits. Repeat this with your other arms raised.
  4. Lie down. Then use the pads of a few fingers to press down on all areas of your breast and armpit. Use your right hand on your left breast, and vice versa. A circular pattern can help ensure you cover the entire area.

Dr. Comander recommends monthly self-exam for:

  • Cancer survivors, in addition to frequent follow-up and screening appointments
  • Females of all ages, whether or not they have high risk for breast cancer
  • Males 35 years and older who have a strong family history of breast cancer or certain genetic mutations

Guidelines are also emerging for transgender individuals, who may have increased risk due to hormone therapy. Transgender women should perform self-exams and be screened if they received estrogen/progestin therapy for more than five years, have a family history, or have a body mass index higher than 35. Transgender men who have undergone a bilateral mastectomy have a small but not zero risk of breast cancer, so clinical exams should include a chest wall exam.

What to do if I find a lump in my breast

If you notice any lumps or changes, remember that there are many possible causes. It’s important not to panic and to simply schedule an appointment with your primary care provider (PCP) or gynecologist.

“At Mass General Cancer Center, we have breast centers in many of our locations with surgeons and nurse practitioners who can evaluate any changes,” Dr. Comander says. “It is important that people feel empowered that if they feel something of concern, they should make an appointment for further evaluation.

Headshot of Amy Comander, MD


Medical Oncologist