Ladies commonly present to our Breast Cancer unit with complaints of lumps in the underarm region (axilla) and their first concern is always breast cancer, but not all axillary lumps are a sign of breast cancer. In this article, I will highlight the common causes of under-arm lumps/ swellings, which ladies can develop:
- Axillary lymph node enlargement – this is the most common cause of underarm lumps. Lymph nodes are present all over the body and they serve as filters. Breast drains into armpit (axillary) lymph nodes. Therefore, if there is any cancer/ infection in the breast, it can lead to enlargement of these nodes. In such situations, we get an ultrasound of the breast and underarm region to confirm the enlargement. Diagnosis is confirmed by a needle test known as FNAC (fine needle aspiration cytology) or lymph node biopsy in some cases.
Another common cause of enlargement of these nodes is after shaving/ waxing of underarm hair. This can lead to momentary enlargement of these nodes (reactive lymphadenopathy), which usually settles down with time or with a course of antibiotics.
- Accessory axillary tissue – ladies usually come with a large lump in the underarm region but give a history that it has been present over a long period of time or has increased in size post-pregnancy or after breast feeding. This is due to extra breast tissue present in the armpit region, which increases after pregnancy and lactation. For most ladies, it is a cosmetic problem because of which they are unable to wear cut sleeves clothes. Some ladies might complain of pain in the swelling as well. An ultrasound should be done to rule out any other condition and surgery can be done to get rid of this problem.
- Sebaceous cyst in the underarm – This is a lump which forms due to a blocked hair follicle duct. It can remain painless till it becomes infected. It is a superficial lesion which can be managed with a simple removal of the lump. If the lump is infected, it can initially be managed with antibiotics before surgical removal
- Breast cancer – Cancerous lumps can primarily develop in the underarm region or cancers can present as lymph nodes in the underarm region. In either case, an ultrasound/ mammogram is required, followed by a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Proper staging of the breast cancer is important before management
- Breast tuberculosis – is a common diagnosis in India. It will either present as an abscess in the underarm region or enlarged lymph nodes (covered earlier) in the axillary region. Diagnosis can be made by a needle test or lymph node biopsy. Treatment usually involves taking anti-tubercular drugs for a period of 6-9 months, depending on response.
As I have highlighted above that breast cancer is just one of the causes of axillary lumps. Having said that, it is best that you visit a breast unit whenever you notice a lump in the breast or underarm region. After taking a history and carrying out clinical examination, the breast surgeon will order an imaging test, which would either be a mammogram or ultrasound or both. This would be followed by a tru-cut biopsy/ FNAC to confirm the diagnosis. In some cases a lymph node biopsy might be required to clinch the diagnosis.
For further information or to book an appointment, please contact
CK Birla Hospital, Gurgaon