What Does Breast Cancer Feel Like?
Feeling a lump is the first symptom of breast cancer for many women but as explained further below, breast tissue is naturally lumpy and most lumps are normal. The most common question we are asked is, “What does breast cancer feel like?” The National Cancer Institute (NCI) supported development of standards for a breast simulation model, a tactually-accurate breast model that teaches fingers what to feel for.
What Does a Benign Breast Lump Feel Like?
There are many reasons why you may feel a lump in your breast. Most of the lumps you may feel are likely benign. Common causes of benign breast lumps include:
- Normal swelling and tenderness
- Fibroadenoma (normal fibrous tissue)
- Fat necrosis (bruised, injured or dead fatty tissue)
- Breast cysts (benign water filled lumps) Infection
- Lipoma (encapsulated group of fat cells) benign changes in breast cells.
What Does a Breast Cancer Lump Feel Like?
Breast cancer often presents itself when a woman notices something out of the ordinary in her breast, a lump that feels different from the feeling of surrounding tissues and structures or a change, something new and different that was not felt before. That is why it is important to know what your breasts normally feel like so that you will notice a difference that persists.
Can I Learn to Feel the Difference?
Yes, fingers are exquisitely well designed to detect the difference between normal breast tissue because suspicious lumps are tactually different. There have been many attempts to describe in words or on videos what our fingers feel during a breast exam. Words like hard, soft, irregular shape, defined borders, fixed, or movable can be useful, but to get it right we must teach our fingers, not our ears or eyes.
The Power of Touch
We humans share, with all other primates, a highly evolved tactile sensory system that resides in our fingers. This sensory equipment is unparalleled in nature or technology.
We use touch—our tactile sense—to feel our pulse, to feel for a contact lens that fell on a rug, to feel whether a tomato is too ripe or too firm, and even to feel and interpret the tiny paper dots called Braille. Our tactile sense is so highly advanced that scientists and engineers devote entire careers to trying to create robots that emulate a few of its brilliant sensory capabilities. When properly trained, the sense of touch can also be used to detect breast cancer at its early stages.
A substantial body of evidence confirms that a large proportion of breast cancers are found by fingers, frequently the woman’s own. This is because most breast cancers are solid tumors and can be palpated (felt) by hand. With training on standardized breast models, fingers learn to detect small suspicious changes that feel different than normal lumpy breast tissue.
Research on Breast Exam Standards: Learning What to Feel For
A team of scientists and physicians at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill identified the most effective method for teaching women how to do breast self-exam, in a study called “How Best to Teach Women Breast Self-Examination: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Women were randomly assigned into three groups to learn how to learn to do breast self-examination using three different techniques. The first group of women was taught tactile BSE skills using Mammacare’s standardized breast simulations (models). The second group of women was taught BSE using traditional printed material—a pamphlet. The third group of women was encouraged to perform BSE without any instruction.
The study reported:
“Mammacare instruction resulted in more long-term improved lump detection and examination technique use than did traditional instruction or physician encouragement. “
About the Author
Mark Goldstein, Ph.D., was a member of the scientific team on the National Cancer Institute research project that validated the procedures for effective physical examination of the breast. He is a MammaCare Senior Scientist and has devoted his scientific career to advancing the early detection of breast cancer.
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