Breast Lumps

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Breast Lumps
Your Radiologist Explains
Breast Lumps

What are breast lumps?

A breast lump is a mass of tissue that develops in the breast. Depending on the type, breast lumps may be large or small and may feel hard or spongy. Some lumps cause pain or nipple discharge, while others go unnoticed until felt or seen during an imaging test.

A lump may be discovered by a woman doing breast self-exam or by her health care provider during a physical exam. Suspicious lumps may also be detected during annual screening exams. Although uncommon, breast lumps can occur in men.

It is important to become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel so that you are able to report any changes to your doctor.

How are breast lumps evaluated?

View larger with caption
Digital mammogram image


View larger with caption
Digital mammogram image

Most breast lumps are benign (not cancer). Proving that a lump is not cancer often involves imaging tests. One or more of the following imaging tests may be performed:

  • mammogram (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=mammo): Mammography is a type of x-ray examination used to examine the breasts. This type of imaging involves exposing the breasts to a small amount of ionizing radiation to obtain pictures of the inside of the breasts. See the Safety page (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/safety/) for more information about x-rays.
  • breast ultrasound (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=breastus): Breast ultrasound is a type of imaging that uses sound waves to create pictures of the inside of the breasts. Breast ultrasound can capture images of areas of the breast that may be difficult to see with mammography. It can also help to determine whether a breast lump is a solid mass or a cyst.
  • breast MRI (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=breastmr): During breast MRI, a powerful magnetic field, radio frequency pulses and a computer will be used to produce detailed pictures of the inside of the breasts. MRI is helpful in evaluating breast lumps that are not visible with mammography or ultrasound, particularly in women with dense breast tissue.

If a lump is proven to be benign by its appearance on these exams, no further steps may need to be taken. Your doctor may want to monitor the area at future visits to check if the breast lump has changed, grown or gone away.

If these tests do not clearly show that the lump is benign, a biopsy may be necessary. One of the following image-guided procedures may be performed:

  • ultrasound-guided biopsy (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=breastbius): During this type of biopsy, ultrasound imaging is used to visualize a breast lump. An interventional radiologist will advance a thin needle to the site of the lump using the real-time ultrasound images and remove some tissue so that it can be evaluated under a microscope. The biopsy procedure is usually quick, but it may take a few days before the final tissue analysis (pathology report) is ready.
  • stereotactic (x-ray guided) biopsy (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=breastbixr): During this type of biopsy, a digital mammography x-ray machine is used to produce real-time pictures of the breast An interventional radiologist uses these live pictures to guide placement of a needle to the site of the lump and remove tissue samples for further evaluation.
  • MRI-guided biopsy (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=breastbimr): An MRI machine is used to produce pictures of the breasts and help the interventional radiologist guide a needle to the site of the lump to remove a tissue sample.

How are breast lumps treated?

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Breast tomosynthesis image

If a lump is proven to be cancer, surgery is usually performed. Depending on the extent of the cancer, you may have the option of undergoing mastectomy (removal of the breast) or breast conservation therapy (removal of the tumor and tissue surrounding it). Your doctor will provide you with the information necessary to make this decision.

One of the following radiation therapy treatments may be used after surgery to ensure any microscopic cancer cells are eliminated:

Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy may also be used.

For more information visit the Breast Cancer disease and Breast Cancer Treatment (www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=breast-cancer-therapy) pages.

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Locate an ACR-accredited provider: To locate a medical imaging or radiation oncology provider in your community, you can search the ACR-accredited facilities database.

This website does not provide costs for exams. The costs for specific medical imaging tests and treatments vary widely across geographic regions. Many—but not all—imaging procedures are covered by insurance. Discuss the fees associated with your medical imaging procedure with your doctor and/or the medical facility staff to get a better understanding of the portions covered by insurance and the possible charges that you will incur.

Web page review process: This Web page is reviewed regularly by a physician with expertise in the medical area presented and is further reviewed by committees from the American College of Radiology (ACR) and the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), comprising physicians with expertise in several radiologic areas.

Outside links: For the convenience of our users, RadiologyInfo.org provides links to relevant websites. RadiologyInfo.org, ACR and RSNA are not responsible for the content contained on the web pages found at these links.

Images: Images are shown for illustrative purposes. Do not attempt to draw conclusions or make diagnoses by comparing these images to other medical images, particularly your own. Only qualified physicians should interpret images; the radiologist is the physician expert trained in medical imaging.

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This page was reviewed on April 13, 2012

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