The Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Symptoms Vary Widely -- From Lumps to Swelling to Skin Changes


More than 250,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with some form of breast cancer this year -- that’s approximately 1 in 8 women. Breast cancer typically appears in cells lining the breast’s milk ducts, or in the glands that produce milk. Cancer cells formed in the breast can spread through to other places in the body via the lymph nodes.

While the vast majority of cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women, more than 2,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in American men each year. For either sex, symptoms of breast cancer may be detectable through breast self-exam, or doctor’s exam and mammography. The most common sign of breast cancer is a lump found in the breast or armpit area. Because symptoms of breast cancer may be related to noncancerous breast conditions, further testing is almost always required to confirm a diagnosis.

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms for women starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health.

Approximately 15 percent of women who develop breast cancer also have a first-degree relative -- mother, sister, daughter -- who had a breast cancer diagnosis.

Finding a Lump or Hard Knot

Breast tissue is naturally lumpy, but some women may detect a lump or knot that feels harder or thicker than surrounding tissue. Not every lump is cancerous. Some lumps are related a woman’s menstrual cycle and disappear after menstruation, or a lump may indicate a benign cyst. However, whenever you notice any type of unusual growth, see your health care provider.

Dimpled Skin

Dimpled or puckered skin can be a sign of breast cancer, as can large, visible pores or the skin taking on an orange-peel-like appearance. If your breast or breasts show any of those indicators, don't wait. Call your physician.

Skin Signs

If you notice patches of skin on your breast, nipple or areola-- the darkened skin surrounding the nipple -- pay close attention. If those areas become scaly, itchy and red or darkened or your breast feels warm where irritations have broken out, it's best to notify your health care provider.

Changes in Breast Size

If you are not breastfeeding, a sudden swelling in one or both breasts may indicate a blockage that causes lymph fluid to back up. A problem with your lymph nodes may also appear as swelling in your collarbone or armpits. If one or both breasts shrink unexpectedly, it may be a sign that significant hormonal changes, which can be a trigger for cancer.

It’s normal to have one breast that is slightly larger than the other, but if you notice a recent change in your breasts , bring this up with your doctor.

Nipple Changes

Some types of breast cancer cause the nipple to retract or completely invert. But that doesn't mean you have cancer. Conditions such as pregnancy, breastfeeding and aging can cause changes. Some people are born with inverted nipples, too.

Nipple Discharge

A discharge from your nipple, whether clear or bloody, may indicate a tumor. But an infection or an injury to your breast can be the cause of the discharge too. It helps to be aware of any discharge and to keep track of it. If it persists, check with your doctor.

Breast Pain

Breast pain makes the list of common symptoms, but be aware that while some breast cancers cause pain in the breast, most do not. Studies have shown that only about 5 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer had pain as their main symptom.

Risk Factors

Approximately 15 percent of women who develop breast cancer also have a first-degree relative -- mother, sister, daughter -- who had a breast cancer diagnosis. The strong family connection may be connected to an inherited mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.. Researchers estimate that having either a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation raises women’s risk of developing breast cancer by 45 to 65 percent.

Age is also a factor. Breast cancer rates generally start to rise after age 40, but about two out of every three cases of invasive breast cancer, a more serious form of breast cancer, are found in women 55 or older. White women are more likely to develop breast cancer after age 45, compared with African-American women. Before age 45, however, African-American women are not only more likely than white women to develop breast cancer, but are also more likely to die from it. Asian, Latin American and Native American women are all at lowered risk for the disease.

If you smoke or are obese, you raise your risk of breast cancer no matter what your age.

Getting a Jump on the Disease

Women as young as 20 should make a clinical breast exam a part of her routine when seeing the doctor. After age 40, the American Cancer Society recommends women have a breast exam by a health professional every year, including a screening mammogram. Women of all ages are encouraged to conduct frequent breast self-exams to help detect changes between exams.

The first step after a problem is detected is a biopsy, which can pinpoint the problem better. Any treatment depends on whether there's an actual tumor, calcifications and if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Treatment options can vary from surgery to remove a single tumor to hormone therapy, radiation and chemotherapy either as a standalone treatment or in combination.

Getting Help

In its earliest stages, breast cancer symptoms may not be apparent except through an exam by your doctor. If you think you are risk for breast cancer, put your mind at ease by contacting your medical provider and getting checked. Your doctor can also show you how to perform breast self-exams at home.

Breast Self-Exam

One easy way to monitor your breast health is through self-exam. Your doctor can give you specifics on how to best examine your breasts, but the basics include lying down, placing a pillow under your left shoulder and raising your left arm behind your head. Use your right hand to move the pads of your fingers around your left breast and armpit in small circular motions to feel for lumps or unusual changes. Squeeze the nipple to check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your right breast. You can also perform checks in the shower and in front of a mirror. If you notice changes in the breast from your last self exam, contact your health care provider who can perform more thorough testing.

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