10 Must-Know Signs of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is incredibly common, occurring most often in women. In fact, it’s the second-most common cancer among women in the United States. With thousands of death resulting from this cancer every year, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of this disease. After all, the earlier cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat.

What are some symptoms of breast cancer?

While not everyone experiences the same symptoms, the following are some tell-tale signs that breast cancer may be present. The first sign is the most noticeable and is easy to detect with a simple self-exam…

1. A lump or lumps in the breast

Breast lumps are one of the classic signs of this type of cancer.

What do the lumps look and feel like?

These lumps can emerge in any area of the breast and vary greatly in size. How these lumps feel will also vary by individual. For some, they can feel like a solid or a squishy mass. For others, they can feel painful or just awkward. Others still may have moveable lumps while others’ lumps stay put no matter how much they are touched.

What exactly are breast lumps?

Now, breast lumps can be anything from tumors to abscesses or cysts. Tests performed by a doctor are the only way to be completely sure what these lumps are, most notably if they are malignant (dangerous) or benign (not cancerous).

How can you find a lump?

One of the best ways to detect a lump early on is to do a self-exam. To perform one, you can lay on your back and gently press on small sections of your breasts to feel for any lumps or abnormalities. Many doctors recommend that you do this exam at least once a month to find a lump, however small, as soon as possible.

You should also get regular mammograms, especially if you are at risk for cancer, on an annual basis typically starting at 45 or even 40. After 55, it’s recommended that you get exams every other year. For those at additional risk, these recommendations can change.

2. Redness and/or discoloration

If your breast suddenly becomes red or has a bruised color without any recent injury, there is a possibility that it is cancer.

What will this symptom look like?

If the discoloration is noticeably red and there is no itching or discomfort that would accompany it (as with a rash or an injury), you should talk to your doctor about the symptoms.

Any tips for dealing with this symptom?

If you cannot see the doctor within a week or so and the discoloration is getting worse, take some pictures. This way, you can show them to your doctor. Then, your doctor can see the symptoms right away, and may even notice if your discoloration has progressed since you took the photos.

3. Nipple discharge

Nipple discharge is when any kind of fluid is excreted through the nipple, and is another common, noticeable cancer sign. Notably, discharge can occur both when the nipple is squeezed or when it is left alone.

What will the discharge be like?

Nipple discharge can look and smell differently depending on the person and the cause behind it. For example, the fluid can range from clear to milky or thin to thick. It can smell or be odorless. In some cases, it can have a greenish color or even be bloody.

Cancer or something else?

For those in their reproductive years, are pregnant, just had a baby, are breastfeeding, and/or just stopped breastfeeding, nipple discharge can be common. So, discharge is not necessarily a sign of cancer in and of itself. Because this symptom is so common among healthy adults, it is a little more difficult to attribute to something as dangerous as cancer, especially if you are lactating.

If you think you are discharging, regardless if you are pregnant or lactating, you should talk to your doctor about the symptoms. They may take samples of the discharge, but you also might want to take pictures in case it changes over time, which is fairly common.

4. Pain or burning

Like the last symptom, breast pain is common for people to have, and sometimes it is brought on by something as normal as hormonal changes. It can even be a result of something as simple as a poorly-fitted bra or an increase in exercise.

What is breast pain like?

Now, breast pain can vary based on the person. Most of the time, it can feel sore, like an overused muscle, or it can feel like a burning sensation; this sensation is usually more common if the cause is a health condition like cancer. Another common indicator that pain might be cancer-related is if it recurs for several months or if it is continuous after more than one to two weeks. Another sign that it might be cancer is if the pain is subjected to only one breast and in one particular area, although this is not always the case.

Cancer or something else?

If you experience breast pain for longer than a week without any changes, you should call your doctor. They will ask you questions to determine if there could be another cause, and they might schedule some tests like a mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI to see if there are any signs of cancer.

5. Swollen or partially swollen breasts

Like the last two symptoms, this one may be mistaken for hormonal changes because it is a common symptom to have in otherwise healthy individuals. People are a little more likely to overlook swelling if it is not accompanied by pain.

Just what does this swelling often look like, then?

Breast swelling can occur in either both breasts or just one, and can be fully or partially swollen; firmness levels will vary by individual. However, it is common for the swollen area to feel warm and tender to the touch. If you do not know how this feels, gently press on your breast. If it gets uncomfortable to touch for too long, then it is most likely tender.

What should you expect at the doctor’s office?

You should try to see a doctor after one week of noticing the swelling and/or tenderness if it has not improved. You can expect questions about your periods, possible pregnancy, recent pregnancy and/or birth, and the possibility of other causes like an injury or past medical conditions.

Because this symptom is so common among healthy and sick individuals, your doctor may not initially call for any breast-examining tests right away—unless you are an at-risk patient. If you are concerned that you are an at-risk patient, ask for a test like a mammogram or an ultrasound.

6. Changes in skin texture

Changes in breast texture is a noticeable sign of pre-developed cancer.

What is this symptom like?

This change mostly translates to skin suddenly and unusually becoming rougher or flaking off the breast and/or nipple.

Now, breast texture changes may not show up alone. This symptom is usually accompanied by redness or discoloration around the nipple and possibly swelling or pain in the area, too. Others may additionally notice pimples on or around the nipple.

Cancer or something else?

If you have not recently gotten sunburned or have skin conditions like psoriasis, shingles, and/or eczema, your doctor will probably want to run some tests right away. Why? Because this symptom is common for a specific type of cancer: Paget’s disease. With this disease, it’s more common for the nipples, rather than the breasts themselves, to flake.

Depending on any other symptoms that you may have and/or the severity of the texture change, your doctor will most likely inspect your breast before calling for some tests and/or possibly giving you a cream that may alleviate the symptom while test results are processed.

7. Nipple retraction

As the name suggests, this symptom is when your nipples retreat into your body. While not a common cancer symptom, it is one of the most noticeable.

Nipple retraction or flat-lying nipples?

It’s important to know the difference between nipples that are laying flat against the skin and those that are going into the skin. After all, the position you are in, your weight, or other factors can make your nipple lay flat and are no cause for concern.

In fact, even retracting nipples themselves are not an automatic sign of breast cancer; menopause and aging can also cause this symptom. Whether you are around the menopausal age or not, though, you should talk to your doctor about the symptom if you notice it.

Is this symptom permanent?

There are some cases where the nipples will not return to normal. However, there are a couple of methods and solutions your doctor can present to you. These usually involve manual suctioning devices or creams that cause the nipple to become erect.

8. Dimples in the breasts

It’s easy to confuse dimples with changes in breast texture, and the size of the dimples can range from only a centimeter in size to a majority of the breast—making this symptom one that’s often hard to detect.

Cancer or something else?

Breast dimpling is less common for cancer patients and taken a little more seriously when noticed since it has fewer causes. Usually, the symptom is only caused by two conditions: fat necrosis (the breast tissue is dying, usually as a result of surgery or injury) and breast cancer. If the cause is cancer, it is normal to see other symptoms like discoloration and/or swelling before your breast starts to dimple, although this is not always the case.

What should you expect at the doctor’s office?

If your doctor suspects that your breast is dimpling, they will most likely do a breast exam when you first see them before calling for a mammogram or ultrasound. Your doctor may even order a a biopsy to check for any cancerous cells.

9. Swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes are incredibly noticeable, even if you do not regularly do breast exams.

Which lymph nodes are affected?

The lymph nodes that become swollen from breast cancer are often found in and around the armpit or even the breast itself. You might not notice them normally, but when they become swollen, they can feel like small lumps that may cause a warm or burning sensation, or even a dull ache or sharp pain.

Cancer or something else?

Swollen lymph nodes in any part of the body are usually strong indications of cancer, although cancer isn’t always the cause. For instance, chickenpox/shingles, HIV, and sometimes intense stress can also cause swollen lymph nodes. If stress is the cause, there is usually little to no pain.

If you notice that you have swollen lymph nodes, you may want to visit your doctor, especially if you also have a fever, are inexplicably losing weight, and feel fatigued. These symptoms can all be additional signs that there is something wrong with your lymph nodes, and that they are not just overworking themselves as a result of stress.

10. Changes in breast shape

It’s not just the size of your breasts that may change with cancer, but also their shape. Changes in breast shape may or may not be accompanied by other symptoms like discoloration or pain.

Cancer or something else?

Now, changes in breast shape may be the result of either swelling, the presence of lumps, or enlarged lymph nodes. While not exclusively a sign of cancer, a change in breast shape—especially when accompanied by other tell-tale cancer symptoms—is a good indication that it’s time to contact a doctor.

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