How To Tell If A Lump is Cancer (Body Lumps Explained)

Last updated: March 9, 2020

Contributed by:
Richard Honaker M.D.
Primary Care Physician
View Full Profile

While smooth skin may be many people’s aesthetic ideal, for many people it is not always possible. It is common to discover lumps and bumps along the body. While most of these curvaceous growths are harmless, some can be a sign of a serious health condition. 

How can you tell the difference between a harmless lump and one that needs medical attention? The truth is it can be hard to tell, even for a doctor. That is why it is important to periodically check your body so that new bumps can get examined by your healthcare provider right away. 





It is also important to be proactive about your health. One way is to become familiar with the lumps and bumps on your body and what they could be. This is especially important for women who may be at increased risk for breast cancer.

Let’s take a deeper look at five common types of body lumps. Knowing more about the common types of growths under the skin can help you to know which may be a sign of cancer, and what are often completely harmless.


Listen to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard A. Honaker explain lumps and bumps:

Thyroid Nodules

Thyroid nodules are abnormal growths of thyroid cells that become firm. They are located within the thyroid gland, which is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the lower front of the neck. Your thyroid is responsible for making hormones that help regulate your temperature, help the body use energy and keep your heart, brain and muscles working properly. 

Thyroid nodules are lumps that feel hard, but do not cause pain or move around when touched. In general, thyroid nodules, even those that are cancerous, do not cause symptoms. They are often discovered when a lump is felt while buttoning up your shirt or fastening a necklace. They can also be seen on CT scans. 

These lumps can grow big enough to cause discomfort. You may feel a ‘tickle in your throat’ or have difficulty swallowing. This occurs when these lumps start to put pressure on the windpipe or esophagus. 

In most cases thyroid nodules do not produce excess thyroid hormones, which means that testing your thyroid function is not an effective way to look for these growths. The best way to find thyroid nodules is through an examination of the neck. 

If you are experiencing thyroid issues and symptoms it is important to chat with a doctor. 



There are many different types of cysts. Cysts can appear on many different areas of the body. They can appear as a bump on the skin or a lump under the skin. Most cysts grow slowly and have a smooth surface. 

Cysts can form for many different reasons. The reasons can vary but usually cysts are formed due to:

  • Infection
  • Blocked ducts
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Inherited diseases


Most cysts only cause problems if they are: 

  • Extremely large
  • Infected
  • Growing in a sensitive area
  • Impinging on a blood vessel or nerve
  • Affecting the function of an organ


Types of Cysts

Cysts can also grow within the body and cause issues with your organs. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) causes ovarian cysts which can interfere with the menstrual cycle and cause infertility. Similarly Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) causes cysts within the kidneys which can impair kidney function. This can also occur within the liver. It is called cystic liver disease. 

Related: Is Bartholin’s cyst an STD? 

Sebaceous cyst

Your sebaceous glands are responsible for making the oil that coats your skin and hair (called sebum). When this gland or its duct becomes damaged or blocked it will fill with sebum and form a cyst. It can also become inflamed or red, indicating an infection. 

Ovarian Cysts

Ovarian cysts form due to a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). PCOS occurs when a woman’s body makes too much male hormones which affects the proper function of the ovaries. 

Ovarian cysts form when follicles in the ovaries which would normally release an egg do not open. This causes a cyst from a build-up of fluid. Ovarian cysts can also form if the follicle does not close properly after an egg is released. 


Ovarian cysts can be painful and are associated with an increased risk of cancer when they occur after menopause. 


Breast cyst

Source: Canva

While any lump in your breast can cause concern; benign cysts are often the culprit. They develop when fluid collects near the glands in your breasts. These cysts can cause tenderness or pain in the affected area. These cysts are commonly found in women during their 30’s and 40’s. 

Ganglion cyst

Ganglion cysts are benign cysts that usually form near and in the  joints of your wrists and hands. It is also possible for the cysts to form in the feet and ankle areas. Ganglion cysts are more common in men than women. 



These benign cysts form on your eyelids when the oil duct becomes blocked. These cysts can feel tender, swell and cause blurred vision when an infected sty forms. If they become too large they can also affect your vision. 

Pilonidal cyst

Pilonidal cysts are more common in men than women. They occur near the top part of the buttocks when loose hairs become embedded in the skin. These cysts are usually filled with dead skin, body oil and hair. These cysts can get infected and be painful. 

Baker’s cyst

Knee injuries or arthritis of the knee are often the cause of a Baker’s cyst. These fluid-filled cysts can impact mobility and be quite painful. Baker’s cysts rarely need to be drained. Medication and physical therapy can be helpful. 

Cystic acne

Cystic acne is the most severe type of acne. It is the result of a combination of bacteria, oil and dead skin clogging the pores of the skin. This type of acne can be painful to the touch but will often improve with age. 


Cystic acne can often be improved with medication prescribed by a dermatologist or your family doctor. 


Pilar cyst

Pilar cysts, like all cysts, usually grow slowly and aren’t usually noticed until they grow to a certain size. Pilar cysts grow in the hair follicle. Since the majority of hair on the body is found on the scalp, 90% of pilar cysts are found there. 


No hair will grow on a pilar cyst which makes it easier to spot on the scalp. The cyst will be firm and may be able to move under the scalp. The skin on the scalp is thick so a pilar cyst is not likely to break or pop. 


Removal of pilar cysts are usually done for cosmetic purposes. They are not usually cancerous. While cysts can be removed by a doctor, this type of removal does not guarantee that the cyst will not return. 

Mucous cyst

A mucous cyst forms when the salivary glands around the lip or mouth becomes clogged with mucus. This can be due to: 


  • Lip piercings
  • Lip or cheek biting
  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Rupture of the salivary gland


This type of cyst usually does not require medical intervention to heal unless it is recurring or painful. 

Branchial cleft cyst

This type of cyst can resemble a large skin tag. Branchial cleft cysts are a type of birth defect that forms a lump below the collarbone or on an infant’s neck. It is usually surgically removed to prevent any future infection. 


Epidermoid cyst

Trauma area a hair follicle within the skin can cause an epidermoid cyst to form.  The epidermis is part of the top layer of your skin. Trauma to the hair follicle can cause the epidermis to grow deeper instead of growing toward the surface of your skin to be shed off. 

Epidermoid cysts are benign bumps filled with keratin protein.


Gardner’s syndrome is an inherited condition that can cause epidermoid cysts. 




Lipomas are fatty growths that generally occur between the layer of skin and muscle. While the exact cause of these growths are not known, it is believed there may be a genetic link. Lipomas are most commonly occurring in people between the ages of 40-60. 

Lipomas are often small, may be painful and can be moved under the skin with gentle pressure. Lipomas are not cancerous, but can grow painfully large. 

If they are painful, you should talk to a doctor. Painful lipomas can be a sign that a nerve or blood vessel is being aggravated. If this is the case, you may need it surgically removed.



These are the most common benign tumors in the breast. These lumps feel smooth and like rubber balls under the skin.The are often round or oval shaped. Fibroadenomas causes are unknown, and they are mainly present in women between the ages of 20 and 30.

Talk to a doctor about this lump, because getting a diagnosis is important for women with any lumps in the breast region. If it is not cancer, they are often left as is, but can also be removed by a doctor.


Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes are common in the neck, armpits, jaw, ears, and groin area. They are soft, move around, and can be tender to the touch. Why do swollen lymph nodes appear?

They can often be signs of a bacterial or viral infection. If swollen lymph nodes persist after a few weeks of beating the infection, it is time to talk to a doctor. Swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of cancer. This is usually indicated by one large lump that is not tender. 



close up image of folliculitis

source: Canva

Folliculitis occurs when the hair follicle becomes damaged and inflamed. This damage often occurs as a result of waxing and improper shaving techniques. Folliculitis can resemble acne as both ailments can produce red or flesh-colored bumps that may or may not be filled with pus. 


In many cases, folliculitis can be easily treated with home remedies. However, folliculitis can become infected and even turn into painful boils. 


If you suspect that your bumps may have become infected it is important to seek medical treatment. 


When to Talk to a Doctor About Your Lumps

Diagnosing lumps and bumps on your own can be challenging. If you are worried about cancer, or if you have a history of cancer in your family, talk to a doctor about the lump.  

Cancer or other serious lumps will have these signs:

  • Firm/hard to the touch
  • Doesn’t move around, fixed to the tissue
  • Not tender when touched
  • Any lump or bump in the breast or groin region
  • Lumps that grow steadily
  • Uneven surface
  • New lump


Don’t Lose Sleep Over Finding a Lump

Don’t let a busy schedule stop you from speaking to a doctor about your health concerns. Connect with a real doctor in minutes with the Your Doctors Online app. Skip the waiting room and the germs and get medical advice 24 hours a day. Download our FREE app today


Disclaimer: This article provides general information and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or medical condition. If you require specific advice, please consult one of our medical professionals through the app. However, in case of an emergency, please call 911.

About Richard Honaker M.D.

Dr. Richard Honaker has over 40 years of experience as a primary care physician specializing in several different areas of medicine. He is able to provide expert case review and analysis for insurance and workers compensation cases as well as providing online medical consultations as the Chief Medical Advisor for Your Doctors Online.

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