Many types of cancer, including those that affect the head, can cause lumps to form that can be felt through the skin. While finding a new lump or bump can be alarming, it’s important to keep in mind that masses can appear on the surface of—or just below—the skin for many reasons other than cancer. Still, any new lump or thickening should be promptly evaluated by a medical professional who can determine the cause.
Types of noncancerous lumps
Lumps and bumps are often unrelated to cancer. For instance, a new head lump is more likely to be a sign of:
A minor head injury
Lumps that come and go are usually not cancerous. Sometimes, they can be traced to a specific event. For instance, did you recently bump your head in a fall or car accident? Following a minor head injury, a lump known as a scalp hematoma may appear as a small amount of blood pools under the skin. This type of lump is not serious and typically resolves within a few days.
Many athletes and other active individuals often develop lumps due to exercise, training, competition and other physical activities. Usually, these noncancerous masses:
- Are found in the outermost layer of skin or the fatty tissue immediately beneath it
- Are soft and sometimes painful to the touch
- Can be moved slightly under the skin
- Increase in size and become more painful with activity
- Decrease in size with rest
In general, if a lump improves with PRICE therapy—protection, rest, ice applications, compression and elevation—it is most likely not cancerous.
An ingrown hair or folliculitis
A common result of hair removal, an ingrown hair can cause a bump to form when the sharp edge of a hair that was shaved, waxed or tweezed curls back and re-enters the skin. When the hair penetrates the skin, the body’s immune system identifies it as an invader and responds with inflammation. An ingrown hair is not a cause for concern and will usually improve without treatment.
Folliculitis develops when a hair follicle becomes infected or inflamed. Also known as “razor bumps,” the resulting lumps can resemble pimples and are usually itchy and painful. A relatively mild case of folliculitis may resolve on its own, but antibiotic treatment might be necessary to clear up a bacterial infection.
A cyst or lipoma
The surface of the skin is made up of a thin, protective layer of cells that continuously shed. An epidermoid cyst can form on the head or neck if these cells move deeper into the skin rather than slough off, creating a small bump under the skin’s surface. A pilar cyst is a flat, flesh-colored lump that can develop on the scalp. Filled with keratin—a protein found in hair, skin and nails—a pilar cyst is not harmful, but it can be easily irritated by brushing or combing the hair.
A common type of soft tissue tumor, a lipoma is a benign growth composed of fat cells enclosed in a thin capsule. A lipoma may feel like a soft, doughy lump that can be moved around under the skin. In the head and neck, lipomas often develop beneath brow-lifting forehead muscles or in the fatty pads of the cheeks.
Epidermoid cysts, pilar cysts and lipomas are usually painless and slow-growing. However, some people choose to have them removed by a doctor for cosmetic reasons.
Signs of a cancerous lump
Most head and neck cancers originate in the moist tissues that line the mouth, salivary glands, nose or throat. The most common symptom is a new lump on the head or neck, an enlarged lymph node in the neck or a persistent sore in the nose, mouth or throat. Other symptoms include a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing and vocal changes.
Cancerous head lumps are usually hard and painless to the touch. In many cases, the mass appears spontaneously, then steadily grows in size.
Vigilance is the best defense
Because the characteristics of a cancerous lump can vary, it is important to pay close attention to any health changes and to follow up with a physician if anything out of the ordinary occurs. Individuals who are interested in having a head lump evaluated by an expert can turn to Moffitt Cancer Center.
The multispecialty team in Moffitt’s highly acclaimed Head and Neck Cancer Program includes accomplished surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, dietitians and supportive care specialists, all of whom focus their practice on treating head and neck cancers. In a single location, our patients have opportunities to consult with multiple experts, including renowned innovators of endoscopic diagnostic procedures, medication-based treatment of thyroid and parathyroid tumors, minimally invasive skull base surgery and other advanced clinical services.
As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida, Moffitt is well known and respected throughout the nation as a research leader that is transforming the treatment of head and neck cancer. Through our robust portfolio of clinical trials, our patients have access to promising new head and neck cancer treatments that are not yet available in other settings.