Breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer among women in the United States, barring a few sub-categories of skin cancer.1 The good news is that it can be managed if caught in time and treated. Your best bet is to make yourself aware of the signs and symptoms, some of which are less talked about than the “lump in the breast” symptom. Be disciplined about watching for these red flags and catch them in time to win the battle against this cancer.
Here are the breast cancer warning signs you should know like the back of your hand.
Physical Signs Of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer detection is usually linked to these common physical symptoms. Learn to watch and feel for them to catch the cancer in its early stages and deal with it swiftly.
Lump In The Breast
A lump in the breast is probably the most well-known and talked about signs of breast cancer. Remember, there is no standard kind of lump or mass. While some lumps are hard, some can be soft. Some women have masses or lumps with irregular shapes, some have rounded ones. Some breast cancers are painless, others are tender to the touch. As the American Cancer Society explains, the key is to know your body and spot any new growth, regardless of its shape or texture.2 The good news is that about 90 percent of lumps detected are not cancerous, so don’t stress over it just yet if you have found a mass in your breast.3
Fluid From Nipple
If you are not breastfeeding but experience discharge from the nipple, that’s a red flag. Research has found that this may be an early warning sign of breast cancer, sometimes noticeable even before you actually find a mass you can detect. A bloodstained discharge from the nipple is also a symptom you should not ignore.4
Before you worry, nipple discharge on its own is not an indication of breast cancer. It is one of many symptoms, so you should check for other signs or approach your doctor if you have concerns. There are multiple benign causes of nipple discharge including mastitis, duct ectasia, and intraductal papillomas, to name a few.5
Swelling Of The Breast
Sometimes, breast cancer may only cause a swelling in the breast even without a lump being discernible. The swelling may be on a part of the breast or the entire breast could be swollen.6 The swelling could even be in your armpit or in the area surrounding the actual breast. This may also happen if breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit region.7
Visual Signs Of Breast Cancer
The visual symptoms of breast cancer can help you detect a problem early. Watch for these changes in addition to the routine physical self-examinations. Should you suspect a problem, do a quick self-check for other symptoms and follow it up with an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Change In Appearance Of The Breast And Skin
If your breast changes shape or one appears to droop lower than the other, or if one breast is larger than the other, take a closer look. Changes to skin texture are a symptom that you may tend to write off. However, if you see your breast looking inflamed or red and the skin puckered or dimpled, that’s another red flag.8
If your nipple becomes inverted or changes its position or even shape, you should have it checked. The appearance of a rash or redness either on or in the area surrounding your nipple is also something to check for. Crusting of the nipple and the skin around it has also been reported by women with breast cancer.9
Is Pain A Symptom Of Breast Cancer?
Pain, surprising as it may sound, is not a typical sign of breast cancer.10 Breast pain could be the result of tenderness or soreness from the menstrual cycle in the week before the period. Or it could be due mastitis, in which case the pain tends to just present suddenly.
However, some women do experience discomfort and pain that isn’t due to their menstrual cycle or mastitis. This can be quite severe and persistent. While this may be due to a benign condition of the breast such as fibrosis or adenosis that needs treating, it could also sometimes be due to cancer. So, do not ignore it.11
Symptoms Of Male Breast Cancer
While the majority of breast cancer cases are among women, men aren’t immune to the problem. And while the number of cases is small, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did record 2141 cases in 2014. Unfortunately, more men, as a proportion of those diagnosed, died from breast cancer than women.12 That said, there are ways to spot breast cancer in men too.
Here are some warning signs and symptoms of breast cancer in men13:
- Lumps: Breast cancer shows up with lumps even for men. While many are just fat- or fluid-filled lumps, some can be cancerous. These tend to be one-sided (one breast only), found under/around the nipple, rubbery/hard and bumpy, and generally painless. They do not move around. These lumps may also grow with time.
- Inverted nipples
- Swollen, hard, red nipples and/or surrounding skin
- Fluid from nipples, discharge that may or may not be blood-streaked
- Rash/sore near the nipple that doesn’t seem to heal
- Armpit bumps from swollen glands
In addition, if the cancer has spread to other organs or the bones, it can make you tired, achy, short of breath, with jaundiced-looking yellow skin/eyes. You may also feel sick.
Inflammatory Breast Cancer Symptoms
While relatively rare, inflammatory breast cancer is extremely aggressive and is responsible for a disproportionate mortality among those diagnosed with different forms of breast cancer. Although it accounts for only 1 to 5 percent of all invasive breast cancer cases reported across the United States, it causes 10 percent of all breast cancer linked deaths. Because this form of breast cancer progresses very quickly – in days or weeks – it must be handled swiftly and diagnosed as soon as possible. Look out for these signs14 15:
Color: When the skin on your breast goes unexpectedly red, pink, or dark, it could be due to inflammatory breast cancer.
Orange peel appearance: If your breast takes on an orange peel-like appearance, you should have it investigated as soon as possible. While mastitis in breastfeeding women also has this effect, if you aren’t nursing or don’t respond to the prescribed antibiotics, you may need to check for inflammatory breast cancer. This is a fast spreading variant of breast cancer so you have to deal with it fast.
Thickening: If the skin on your breast develops ridges or thicken in some patches, that’s a red flag.
Swelling: When the breast swells, making one suddenly seem significantly bigger than the other, you should check why this is happening.
Warmth or itchiness: Itching and breast warmth could again be because of inflammatory breast cancer if mastitis is ruled out.16
Nipple changes: If the nipple is either flattened in appearance or retracted instead of how it normally appears, that is another sign of inflammatory breast cancer as well.
Breast pain: Some women also experience tenderness or breast pain when they have inflammatory breast cancer.17
Doing A Breast Self-Exam For Cancer
A breast self-exam is a way to check for all these symptoms in one go. When you plan to do a breast self-exam for breast cancer, try and time it so it is around 3 to 5 days after the beginning of your period. Stick with the same schedule every month so you check at the same point in your menstrual cycle. This will reduce the chances of their being naturally lumpy and tender due to hormonal changes. Postmenopausal women should simply pick the same day each month to check themselves.
Follow these steps to check yourself18:
1. Check Your Breast
Lie down on your back. This enables you to properly check all sections of the breast and detect lumps and masses better. Put your right hand below your head and use the middle fingers of the other hand to press down on the right breast tissue in circular motions. Use a firm yet gentle touch. Repeat on the other breast.
2. Check Your Armpit
After this, check your underarm area while standing or sitting. Breast tissue extends all the way to your armpits.
3. Check Your Nipples
Squeeze nipples gently to see if there is any kind of discharge or fluid seeping from them. Remember to check both nipples.
4. Mirror Check For Visual Signs
After this, stand in front of a mirror, ensuring you can see the breast area completely.
Put your arms by your side and look for changes. Repeat with your arms raised overhead. Here are the signs you should be looking for:
- Skin texture (dimpling/orange peel texture/puckering/indentations)
- Any change in shape and appearance of breasts
- Change to appearance of the nipple, including inverted nipples
|↑1, ↑12||Breast Cancer Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|
|↑2, ↑6||Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms. American Cancer Society.|
|↑3, ↑4, ↑10||Breast cancer (female) – Symptoms. National Health Service.|
|↑5||Parthasarathy, Veda, and Usharani Rathnam. “Nipple discharge: an early warning sign of breast cancer.” International journal of preventive medicine 3, no. 11 (2012): 810.|
|↑7, ↑11, ↑15, ↑16||Breast Cancer Symptoms: What You Need to Know. American Cancer Society.|
|↑8, ↑9||Signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Breast Cancer Care.|
|↑13||Symptoms of breast cancer in men. National Health Service.|
|↑14, ↑17||Inflammatory Breast Cancer. UofL Brown Cancer Center.|
|↑18||Breast self-exam. U.S. National Library of Medicine.|