How to Tell the Difference Between Lumps, Cysts & Tumors

Finding a lump on our body can be unsettling (to say the least!) – that awful moment of panic when our mind jumps to the worst possible scenario. For many of us in the Everviolet community, those fears have become a reality, but whether we're a woman who hasn't received a breast cancer diagnosis or someone who's already endured it, it’s essential to pay attention to any new bumps that appear. But how do we tell the difference between lumps, cysts and tumors 

First and foremost, we'd like to make it clear that only doctors can really answer that questionIf there’s any concern or a “gut feeling" about a new discovery, it’s important to not wait and get it checked out. But for general knowledge, and in the hopes of easing a little anxiety, here are a few things to keep in mind. 

Many types of lumps can form throughout our body, and despite common fears, not all are linked to cancer. A lump, or mass, is a general term used by doctors that refers to something that’s bumpy and abnormal, found either on or under the skin's surface. A lump can be a sign of breast cancer or another type of cancer, but most of the time, lumps are benign (not cancerous) and harmless, especially ones that feel soft, tender, and roll easily under our fingers.1 

Cysts can form anywhere in our body – in our bones, organs and soft tissue – and can be caused by infections, excessive production from our sebaceous glands, chronic inflammatory conditions, hormones, obstructions to the flow of fluids or foreign bodies. There are many different types of cysts, but the most common ones are either simple or complex cysts. Simple cysts are sacs filled with liquid or air; whereas complex cysts contain solid material or blood and may require a biopsy to fully analyze. To the touch, a simple cyst may feel softer than a complex cyst. In comparison to other masses or tumors, both simple and complex cysts are easier to move around in the breast and tend to have smoother surfaces. It's common to experience some tenderness on or around the cyst(s).1 

Most commonly, women develop simple, fluid-filled cysts in the breasts due to hormone fluctuationspecifically estrogen. This occurrence, often referred to as fibrocystic breasts, may cause our bosoms to feel bumpy or almost rope-like to touch. These cysts are not considered cancerous but may cause general breast pain throughout our menstrual cycle. 

Another common lump found in our breast is called a sebaceous cyst, which can occur when skin glands get clogged by dead skin cells or hair follicles. Sebaceous cysts typically present as small, circular bumps under the skin, similar to fibrocystic changes, but with a tiny blackhead-like center. Unlike other breast lumps, these cysts can sometimes excrete a thick, yellow discharge, but they more than likely do not cause any sort of sensitivities unless they are inflamed.   

As previously mentioned, most cysts are noncancerous, but it's important to be cautious. Cysts often act as indicators of changes taking place in our body and can cause health risks if they rupture. Some doctors recommend removing a cyst or multiple cysts for a pathologist to examine.  

A more worrisome lump, a tumor or neoplasmis an abnormal tissue mass that can develop on nearly any part of the body. Tumors can grow faster than other normal tissue, but it’s also worthwhile to note that not all tumors pose health concerns. Benign tumors do not cause harm unless they interfere with normal bodily functions. On the other hand, malignant (cancerous) tumors can be a serious health risk due to the fact that they can invade nearby tissues or organs. To the touch, tumors often feel like small, hard marbles, and doctors typically recommend a biopsy to determine the nature or grade of them 

So, what should we do if we find a lump on our breast? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. For pre-menopausal women, wait for our next menstrual cycle but only ithe lump is sensitive to the touch, soft and moves around easily. It’s common for lumps to increase and decrease in response to monthly hormonal fluctuations. 
  2. If the lump remains after our menstrual cycle, feels hard, doesn’t move easily under the skin, or is painless, it’s important to get an appointment right away for a checkup. 
  3. If our doctor expresses any concern, further evaluation will be needed through a screening test – either an ultrasound, mammogram, MRI or biopsy.
  4. If our doctor dismisses the lump, but we still feel worried, always trust our intuition. Insist on having an ultrasound or seek a second opinion. After all, we know our body better than anyone.

Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it's better to find breast cancer in an earlier stage, when it's easier to treat. It's important that we perform self-exams – even having our partner keep a lookout for any changes in the way our body looks and feels can help us notice symptoms we may have passed over. We must also talk to our doctors about which breast cancer screening tests are right for us, and when we should have them. Our risks are individual, and our protocols for health should be too.

“The only person who can save you is you: That was going to be the thing that informed the rest of my life.” — Sheryl Crow