- Cancer Australia. (2021). What is Cancer? Retrieved on 6 September 2021 from https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/impacted-by-cancer/what-cancer
- American Cancer Society. (2021). Non-cancerous Breast Conditions. Retrieved on 6 September 2021 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/non-cancerous-breast-conditions.html
- National Cancer Institute. (2021). Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Retrieved on 6 September 2021 from https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq
- Cancer Council. (2020). Types of Cancer: Thyroid Cancer. Retrieved on 6 September 2021 from https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/thyroid-cancer
- Cancer Council. (2019). Types of Cancer: Lymphoma. Retrieved on 6 September 2021 from https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/lymphoma
- National Cancer Institute. (2019). How Cancer Is Diagnosed. Retrieved on 6 September 2021 from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/diagnosis-staging/diagnosis
Does a lump always mean cancer?
Discovering a lump can be alarming. Your mind may race down a rabbit hole of possible causes – including the question “is this cancer?”
Although it’s natural to be concerned, it’s important to stay calm as most lumps are harmless with no cause for concern. However, remaining aware of changes in your body and seeking support from your GP ensures that if the lump is cancer, then a diagnosis can be made at the earliest possible stage.
While most lumps are harmless, it is important to remain vigilant and contact your GP if you are ever unsure.
Non-cancerous lumps are also known as benign lumps1. These types of lumps rarely cause serious complications and do not spread. Common types of benign lumps include:
- Lipomas – benign tumours that are made up of fatty tissue. They often feel squishy and are easy to move. Lipomas are commonly located around the legs, torso and arms
- Cysts – closed pockets of tissue that appear under the skin and may be located anywhere on the body. In rare cases, cysts can be cancerous or caused by cancer
As a general rule of thumb, benign lumps are soft, moveable and located in the superficial or fat layer of skin. They can grow to be large and painful but will decrease in size over time. In some cases, benign lumps may grow too big and pose a problem to supporting tissue, nerves and blood vessels1. However, if removed, they are unlikely to return.
When a lump is cancerous, this means it is malignant. Malignant lumps are tumours composed of abnormal cells that grow rapidly, spreading to different parts of the body. They invade healthy tissue, which is why it’s important to see your GP as soon as possible. Malignant lumps may appear out of nowhere and can often be identified by being hard, rooted in place and persistent.
There are several types of cancer that commonly cause malignant lumps, including breast cancer, thyroid cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, lymphoma and testicular cancer. Note that malignant lumps can be either painless or in some circumstances, cause pain.
Thyroid cancer develops in the thyroid, which is a butterfly-shaped gland at the back of your neck.
While not all lumps in this gland are cancerous, thyroid cancer often presents as a lump on the neck and throat.
In some instances, the lump may even be visible when swallowing. If you have a suspicious thyroid lump, your doctor will order an ultrasound +/- biopsy for further evaluation and diagnosis.
Breast lumps are relatively common. If you find a lump, don’t panic. A majority of these are benign, which often feel like a round, smooth rubber ball. Malignant lumps, on the other hand, are irregular, firm and unable to be moved.
Understanding how your breast normally feels is essential to finding these lumps early. We recommend that you perform a self-examination of each breast monthly – click here for advice and recommendations on the best ways to perform a breast self-examination.
If you do locate a lump, contact your GP as soon as possible. Although malignant cancers are less common compared to benign lumps, early detection is incredibly important. The only reliable way to know whether your lump is benign or malignant is through diagnostic tests like a mammogram and ultrasound of the breast.
Sometimes, cancer can grow and develop in a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. This type of cancer is known as lymphoma. Lymphoma often appears through swollen and potentially painful lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin. To understand if the lump is lymphoma, a physical examination, blood test and biopsy is essential.
Testicular cancer is one of the most common cancers in young men aged between 20 and 40-years-old. The cancer may initially cause symptoms such as an enlarged testicle or painless lump on one or more testes. A testicular cancer diagnosis can be confirmed through a range of assessments, including a physical examination, ultrasound and blood tests.
Your doctor will walk you through the examination process, which may include diagnostic imaging such as an ultrasound, CT scan, MRI or x-ray. You may also receive a biopsy, which is a vital test to confirm if a lump is benign or malignant.
If the lump is confirmed as cancer, you will be referred to a clinical haematologist or medical oncologist who will support you through the assessment and treatment processes.
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