In its simplest form, breast cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the tissues of the breast. These malignant cells, which can spread from their origin throughout the entire body, grow and multiply in a disorderly fashion, leading to the growth of tumors. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer women face, affecting one out of every eight women in their lifetime, and while it affects both men and women, it is far more common in women. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and 40,000 of those diagnosed lose their life to the disease annually; on average, men are diagnosed with breast cancer at one-tenth that rate.
One of the most important things women can do to fight breast cancer is conduct monthly breast self-exams to monitor for any sudden changes to the look or feel of their breasts. If you have ever found a lump during one of these self-exams, you know how scary it can be. However, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of all lumps women discover turn out to be benign (non-cancerous) and do not require aggressive treatment. Benign lumps can be caused by cysts, fat necrosis, or mastitis, all of which are treatable and non-cancerous. Furthermore, the breast is made up of many different tissue types that comprise a variety of structures, all of which come together to make a structure that is, by its nature, a bit lumpy. Lumps stand out from these structures, but if they can be benign or cancerous, how can you tell the difference?
Generally speaking, cancerous lumps tend to have a few important distinctions from their benign counterparts. Interestingly, size is not usually a determining factor in differentiating between benign and cancerous lumps, as both types of lumps have a wide range of possible sizes. First, cancerous lumps are most often immovable, meaning they are rooted in the tissue of the breast and cannot be rolled around in the fingers, whereas benign lumps can be more easily manipulated. Second, cancerous lumps tend to be much more firm than benign ones, so if a lump is squishy, like a grape, there is a good chance it is benign. Finally, breast cancer does not usually lead to the development of painful lumps, so if a mass is tender to the touch its possible that it is benign.
However, these are just rules of thumb, not hard and fast guidelines for determining the difference between a benign and a cancerous lump. Malignant lumps have been known to be soft, moveable, and painful just as often as benign ones have presented as hard, rooted in the tissue of the breast, and pain-free. Therefore, in almost all instances of finding a lump in the breast, additional testing will be required to determine whether or not a lump will require aggressive treatment. Therefore, you should always have new lumps or masses checked out by your physician to ensure something dangerous doesn’t go unnoticed. If they are concerned, they will order a mammogram or ultrasound to uncover the nature of the lump and, if necessary, perform a tissue biopsy to determine whether or not the cells are malignant. At the end of the day, sampling and testing the cells in a laboratory is the only way to know for sure whether or not someone has cancer, so getting the appropriate care as soon as possible is absolutely vital to long-term outcomes.