How Can You Tell If A Breast Lump Is Normal Or Abnormal?

There's basically no such thing as a breast lump that doesn't grab your attention when you discover it, and that's a good thing: Though experts estimate that 80 percent of breast lumps are benign (especially in women under 40) and that 80 percent of women who experience a benign breast lump will never get breast cancer, it's good to get in the habit of paying attention to your breast health — including being aware of any changes to the shape or texture of your breasts. And any new breast lump should be checked out by your doctor, particularly if it feels different from the breast tissue surrounding it. Only a doctor can truly decide if your breast lump is something harmless, or something worth being concerned about.

However, all of this doesn't mean that freaking out every time you find a small bump or lump in your breast is a healthy or helpful reaction. In fact, panic and fear can prevent us from making clear-headed health decisions (like having a doctor check us out or having an honest discussion with a medical professional about our personal breast cancer risk), so it's important to have a handle on the different kinds of breast lumps out there, and to know how concerned you should be about each of them.

There's another reason to stay on top of your breast lumps, even if the only ones you ever discover end up being benign: according to a 2005 study by the New England Journal of Medicine, certain kinds of benign breast lumps — those called "proliferative lesions" and those which are symptoms of a condition called atypia — can be a sign of an increased likelihood of developing breast cancer in the future. So awareness about your breast lumps now, even if they're not cancerous, can pay off later.

All this probably sounds scary — and it is. But the best way to make it less scary is to demystify breast lumps for yourself — by learning how to tell abnormal lumps from normal ones. None of the information below is any substitute for a consultation with a doctor, and if you ever find a lump, you need to see a doctor immediately. But the facts below should help you keep a clearer head if, one day, you do find a lump in your breast.

Abnormal Breast Lumps Frequently Feel Hard To The Touch

What's Normal: Many of us have lumps that are called breast cysts — "a smooth, firm fluid-filled lump most commonly seen in women aged 30 to 60," as described by the NHS. If you've ever had a cyst in another part of your body, breast cysts have a similar consistency.

Many women also have fibroadenomas, firm breast lumps that, according to the NHS, "moves around easily in the breast." While every lump should be evaluated by a medical professional so that you can truly know what's up, these particular lumps are not dangerous or abnormal. Your breasts are pretty lumpy in and of themselves — the tissues, fat, and milk ducts and lobules inside our breasts often feel bumpy (and some of us naturally have bumpier breasts than others, or lumpier times of month in our cycle). But those naturally bumpy areas should feel fairly flexible.

What's Abnormal: Conversely, an abnormal breast lump typically feels more solid, and does not move around as easily under the skin as a cyst. These abnormal, hard-to-move lumps are generally tumors. There is such a thing as a benign breast tumor , of course— not all breast tumors are inherently cancerous. However, if you feel a tumor of any sort in your breast, you definitely need to go see a doctor to have it evaluated.

Abnormal Breast Lumps Are Often Accompanied By Other Breast Changes

What's Normal: Though you shouldn't ignore or blow off any changes to how your breasts feel or look, especially if you have recently found new lumps, there are some changes that are worth paying more attention to than others. Pain in your breast the reappears at the same point in your menstrual cycle each month is not typically a sign of breast cancer or any other abnormality; similarly, redness or inflammation of the breast, especially among women who are breastfeeding, is most likely an infection called mastitis (which should definitely be treated by a doctor).

Even discharge isn't always a sign of something fishy afoot — though all nipple discharge in non-pregnant women is worth discussing with your doctor, green, clear, and even milky discharge doesn't always signify something worrisome, especially if the discharge is coming from both breasts. For example, intraductal papillomas, which are small, noncancerous growth in the milk ducts, are often accompanied by nipple discharge.

Experiencing breast changes like these at the same time you find a new lump is not a sign that the lump is dangerous (though they are also not a sign that it is not dangerous, either — only a doctor can make that call).

What's Abnormal: A dangerous breast lump may be accompanied by other physical changes — including nipples that have suddenly inverted, dimpled skin on the breast, or other changes to the appearance of the breast. Changes to the size or shape of your breast are also a cause for alarm. Nipple discharge that is yellow, brown, red, or bloody is something to pay special attention to, as it discharge that only comes out of one breast.

Of course, some lumps appear on their own, with no additional changes to the breast — but they should still be checked out by a doctor.

Abnormal Lumps Are Not Usually Present In Both Breasts Simultaneously

What's Normal: If you feel a lump in one breast, and then find a lump in the same place on your other breast, the odds are good that you are simply feeling some lumpy tissue in your breast — this might particularly be likely if you're not familiar with how your breasts typically feel. According to the National Cancer Institute, "If both breasts feel the same, it may be normal. Normal breast tissue can sometimes feel lumpy." This doesn't mean that you should ignore it — but it does mean that you don't need to panic.

What's Abnormal: Generally, an abnormal lump you find in one breast will not have a parallel lump in the other breast. However, as in all of these situations, you want to talk to a doctor no matter what — you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting a medical professional's opinion as soon as possible. Especially now that you know so many ways that breast lumps can end up not being that scary after all.

Want more women's health coverage? Check out Bustle's new podcast, Honestly Though, which tackles all the questions you're afraid to ask.

Images: Andrew Zaeh/Bustle; Giphy