Breast lumps: cyst, cancer or something else?

Siski Green / 24 September 2013

In the fight against breast cancer early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death

Check yourself for signs of breast cancer

If someone asked you right now whether one of your breasts was bigger than the other*, could you tell them the answer? If not, it’s time to get to know your breasts. 

Could it be a cyst?

The first step to prevent yourself from dying of breast cancer is knowing your own body. Why? If you can’t tell when your breast tissue has changed, you won’t know to go to a doctor to get it looked at. Eight out of ten breast lumps aren’t cancerous – most are cysts or fibroadenomas (non-cancerous growths). If breast cancer is diagnosed early and treated survival rates go up dramatically – around 95% of patients with early detected breast cancer will survive.

Unusual signs of breast cancer

Make sure you are screened for breast cancer

Every woman should be screened between the ages of 50 and 53, according to the NHS. After that, you are invited to have further screenings every three years. Around one third of breast cancers are diagnosed via screenings each year, and the NHS estimates that this saves around 1,300 lives each year.

Be aware of your breasts for any changes

Take a good look

Looking at your breasts directly and in the mirror will give you some information. If they’ve changed size or shape, for example.

Touch them

Run your fingers firmly over your breasts and under your armpit, up to your collarbone too. A cancerous lump may feel hard and immovable like a pip in a lemon. Other non-cancerous lumps may feel more squishy, like a pea. Either way, if you feel a lump you need to see a doctor immediately. (NB not all cancerous or non-cancerous lumps will be pea or pip-sized, so see your doctor regardless of what size the lump is.)

Could there be anything different?

The most important thing to take note of is if there are any unusual changes in your breasts, your armpits and up to your collarbone.

Size, shape and texture

Has one breast changed size recently, or does it seem a different shape? Is there dimpling on your breast where there was none before? Or puckering? Is there a lump or thickening of breast tissue? Anything else that feels different to before?


Is your nipple inverted? (This is where the central part of the nipple is pulled in.) Has it changed shape or does it no longer seem to be in the same place as before? Or is there redness or a rash on the skin near the nipple. Any discharge?


Do you have continuous pain in your breasts or your armpits?

Less obvious signs of breast cancer

Have you checked all around the breast tissue?

Breast cancer might not be noticeable on what you think of as your breasts – breast tissue extends into the armpit and up to the collarbone, so you need to check those parts of your body too.

*For the record, no two breasts are identical so in all likelihood every woman will answer yes to that question, though some women’s breasts are more uneven than others

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.