Breast Cancer Awareness Month: The Difference Between Breast Cysts & Tumors

October 3, 2023

Discovering a lump in your breast is understandably nerve-wracking. With about 1 in 8 women being diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s reasonable to be concerned about the potential of the lump being cancerous. However, breast lumps are very common in women, with most being noncancerous or life-threatening.

As they say, knowledge is power – and knowing more about the risks and possibilities of breast lumps can help you seek the answers you need for your health.

What to Know About Breast Cysts

Over 80 percent of breast lumps are not cancer, with breast cysts being the most common type of lump. Breast cysts are round structures filled with fluid, almost like a water balloon. They can range in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters. Most women will have a breast cyst at some point during their lifetime, commonly between the ages of 30 and 50. This is likely mainly because breast cysts are thought to be linked to changes in a woman’s hormones – specifically estrogen and progesterone – and typically form during the phases of the menstrual cycle.

The common signs and symptoms associated with breast cysts include:

  • Pain and tenderness
  • Lump that moves easily under the skin
  • Smooth and soft texture to lump
  • Symptoms better or worsen throughout the menstrual cycle

There are three types of breast cysts. Simple cysts are always noncancerous and are round sacs wholly filled with fluid. Complicated cysts have membranes and can be a mix of solid matter and fluid, with most being benign. Complex cysts have irregular, thicker walls and solid matter in the fluid, with most also being benign.

The majority of cysts will go away on their own – about 70 percent – without treatment. If the cyst is painful, your doctor may drain some of the fluid to help provide relief. Simple cysts do not increase a person’s risk of breast cancer. For complicated or complex, there is a slight risk that the solid mass in the cyst could contain precancerous cells, and your healthcare provider may order a biopsy to confirm.

What to Know About Breast Tumors

Breast tumors are a solid mass and can be either noncancerous or cancerous. A benign tumor comprises abnormal cells that are usually harmless and do not spread to other parts of the body. Benign tumors may be removed surgically if they grow too large, impacting other areas in your body.

About 99 percent of breast tumors are painless. Other differences from breast cysts include that tumors may not move when prodded, could have uneven or hard edges, and do not change during your menstrual cycle.

There are three common types of noncancerous breast tumors:

  • Fibroadenoma: The most common tumor grows from connective and glandular breast tissue.
  • Intraductal Papilloma: This tumor develops in the milk ducts and may cause bloody or clear discharge from the nipple.
  • Phyllodes Tumor: Most of these tumors are noncancerous – 3 out of 4 are benign because they develop in the breast’s connective tissue, while most cancers begin in the glands or ducts.

The most common forms of breast cancer are:

  • Ductal Carcinoma: The most common cancerous tumor develops in the duct cells of the breast.
  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer: The cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast.
  • Paget’s Disease of the Breast: Cancer in the nipple.
  • Lobular Carcinoma: Cancer occurs in the lobules, the milk glands of the breast.

When to See a Doctor About a Breast Lump

If you detect a lump in your breast, always immediately schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. While most breast lumps are benign, it is difficult to determine what the mass is without medical attention.

Most likely, your doctor will conduct a physical exam and order a diagnostic mammogram and/or breast ultrasound. Depending on the results or if there are any abnormalities, a biopsy of the lump may be requested.

It is important to note that a lump can present differently than the norm. For instance, a common symptom of breast cysts is that they are smooth and soft; however, if the cyst is complicated or complex, it could feel hard. That’s why if you feel anything unusual in your breast or armpit – for both men and women – you should contact your physician as soon as possible. In addition to breast lumps, common changes that could be signs of breast cancer include:

  • Change in the shape or size of the breast
  • Swelling or lump in the armpit
  • Change in nipple appearance
  • Thickened tissue in the breast
  • Fluid discharge from the nipple
  • Puckering, redness, or dimpling of breast skin
  • Itchy, red rash around the nipple