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Breast exam: How breast tissue normally feels

Courtesy Mayo Clinic

How breast tissue normally feels

During a breast self-exam, you'll feel tissues of varying consistency. Glandular tissue usually feels firm and slightly rope-like, bumpy or lumpy (nodular); it's primarily felt in the upper, outer region of your breast. Surrounding fat tissue is soft; it's often felt in the inner and lower portions of your breast. The contrast between these two types of tissue is often more pronounced just before your period due to hormonal influences on the breast.

Besides changes related to your menstrual cycle, breast tissue also changes as you age. In the majority of women, breast tissue becomes more fatty and less dense over time. You may find that your breast-related symptoms, such as tenderness or lumpiness, also differ over the course of your menstrual cycle and as you get older.

When to go to the doctor

If you've found a breast lump or detected a change in one of your breasts, check your other breast. Some lumpiness may be normal - especially if your other breast feels the same to you.

But make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • § The breast lump is new or unusual and feels different from breast tissue in that breast or your other breast.
  • § The breast lump doesn't go away after your next menstrual period.
  • § You notice the breast lump has changed, for instance it gets bigger or becomes firmer.
  • § You have bloody, possibly spontaneous, discharge from your nipple.
  • § You notice skin changes on your breast, such as redness, crusting, dimpling or puckering.
  • § Your nipple is turned inward (inverted), although it isn't normally positioned that way.

Is it breast cancer? Procedures to evaluate breast lumps

Clinical breast examination

Evaluation of a breast lump begins with a breast examination performed by your doctor or nurse practitioner (clinical breast examination).

During this exam, your doctor or nurse practitioner:

  • § Questions you about your symptoms
  • § Looks at your breasts, noting their shape and size
  • § Observes the condition of the overlying skin on your breasts
  • § Checks for nipple problems, such as inversion or discharge
  • § Feels (palpates) deeper tissue in your breasts and armpits for lumps, prominent nodular areas or areas of thickening

If your doctor confirms that you have a breast lump or other area of concern, the next step is to determine whether it's caused by a noncancerous condition or whether it's a cancer. However, the cause of a breast lump or other change can't be determined based on a clinical breast exam alone - more testing will be needed.

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