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How To Tell The Difference Between A Breast Cyst And A Lump

We asked an expert!
PHOTO: istockphoto

It's easy to get freaked out if you come across a lump during your regular boob check. But most lumps (in particular those found by young women, as 80 percent of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women over 50) are unlikely to be cause for concernsays Dr. Shahzadi Harper, founder of The Harper Clinic and a women’s health specialist.


"Benign cysts, which are simply a build-up of fluid, are really common," she explains. "They're actually hereditary from your mother's side." Other non-cancerous tissue growths (called fibroadenoma) can also appear in the breasts too and like cysts, aren't anything to worry about.

As always though, it's recommended that you book in with your OB-GYN to discuss any health concerns (or to get a newly discovered lump examined, if for no other reason than to put your mind at ease), rather than self-diagnosing. Below, we've answered a few common questions to hopefully reassure you in the meantime.

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So, how can you tell the difference between a breast cyst and a breast lump?

Typically, says Dr. Harper, cysts tend to be smoother, bigger and more buoyant. "Lumps are usually harder, firmer and have craggy edges to them." The most common place to find cancerous lumps is under the armpit or in the upper outer quadrant of the breast (if you imagine dividing your boob into four, that means the upper section nearest to the armpit). "Really though, it's always best to have a professional examine a lump for you."

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What's the best way to work out if a lump is abnormal?

It's all about getting to know your own boobs. "Check your breasts once a month after you period," Dr. Harper advises, as breasts tend to feel lumpier before menstruation. That way, you're more likely to notice when a change has occurred and can book in with your OB-GYN.

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Whilst examining your boobs, armpits and collarbone area, you should also be looking out for:

  • Changes in skin texture such as puckering/dimpling
  • Nipple discharge
  • Nipple inversion and changes in direction
  • Swelling in your armpit or around collar bone
  • A sudden change in size or shape
  • A rash or crusting of the nipple or surrounding area

    "I generally say to check using four fingers and start at the "12 o'clock" point of the breast, then work your way round. Don't forget the underarm area, collarbone and to go slightly below where your bra would sit, too." There's no right or wrong way to check your breasts per se, the main thing is that you do check them.


    If you have found a lump and the doctor wants to have it checked out, you'll may be referred to a specialist and may have a biopsy, mammogram (a breast x-ray) or ultrasound.

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    This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.