While most breast cancer in the United States is detected through screening mammography, there are a number of breast cancer symptoms of which women still need to be aware. Despite advanced imaging such as digital mammography, tomosynthesis, and ultrasound and MRI, breast cancer often still begins with a woman identifying something unusual with one of her breasts.
This discussion describes the most common breast cancer symptoms that bring women into one of our centers. Please remember this is only an overview of breast cancer symptoms to assist women to better understand common breast concerns. Not all breast cancer symptoms will fit neatly into the provided descriptions and women are reminded to discuss all concerns or questions with their health care providers.
Identifiable Breast Cancer Symptoms
While getting regular screenings is an important part of breast cancer prevention, familiarizing yourself with the most common breast cancer symptoms can be a big help as well. If detected early, before it can spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 99 percent. There are 8 basic symptoms of breast cancer to be aware of.
- Breast Lumps. Breasts are made up of a complex network of blood vessels, nerves, fibrous tissue, glandular tissue, lobules, and milk ducts. All these structures give breasts a naturally lumpy and uneven texture. However, lumps that feel different from the rest of your breasts or develop suddenly can be a cause for concern. Breast lumps may be hard and painless, like an uncooked bean, or soft and tender, like a grape. They can be large or small, and can develop in your breast or underneath your arm. Though not always cancerous, if you find one, you should always have it checked by your doctor.
- Change in Consistency. The consistency of a woman’s breast fluctuates naturally over her lifetime, most often during pregnancy and menopause. However, if your breast tissue thickens very suddenly, it may be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, a rare, but aggressive form of cancer, or lobular breast cancer, which develops in the breast’s milk-producing lobules.
- Change in Skin Color or Texture. Red, scaly, or dimpled skin is also a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. The symptoms may look like an ordinary rash. In serious cases, the breast will appear bruised and develop a rough texture, like an orange peel.
- Breast Swelling. Inflammatory breast cancer can cause your breasts to swell. Often, this will happen in only one breast, making it larger than the other. This may be accompanied by changes in skin color or texture, but often the only visible symptom is a sudden asymmetry in your breasts. If the cancer has spread to your lymph noses, swelling may also occur around your armpit or collarbone.
- Breast Shrinkage. Breasts can shrink for many reasons, including hormonal changes during menopause or simple weight loss. But if one breast beings to shrink while the other remains the same size, it may be caused by a tumor developing around your chest wall. This pulls in the breast tissue, making the breast appear smaller.
- Nipple Retraction. Breast tumors can sometimes cause the milk ducts in your breast to retract, pulling your nipple inward. In some cases, it will look as if the nipple has been inverted.
- Nipple Discharge. Breasts are always producing fluid, even when a woman is not pregnant. Normally, this fluid is blocked by keratin in your milk ducts. Occasionally, in healthy women, it can leak out if the breast is squeezed. However, if it begins leaking out on its own, without the breast being squeezed, it may be a sign of something wrong, especially if the discharge only occurs in one breast or if the fluid is bloody.
- Breast Pain. Most breast pain is due to hormonal fluctuations, stress, or can be caused by an injury to the ribs or muscles underneath. However, if the pain is persistent, confined to a single area, and has no obvious explanation, it may be a symptom of breast cancer. Seeking a doctor’s opinion is the best course of action, especially if it coincides with any of the other symptoms on this list.
Additional Breast Cancer Symptoms Information
- Some breast cancer symptoms can be confused with non-cancerous, or benign, breast conditions.
- If a woman routinely performs a breast self-exam (BSE), she should complete the exam at the same point of her menstrual cycle. Normal hormonal fluctuations during the course of a menstrual cycle cause changes in the breast that will affect how the breast feels.
Not all breast cancer symptoms can be seen or felt by patients. Current mammography guidelines from the American Cancer Society (ACS) and others recommend women get an annual screening mammogram at the age of 40. If you have a history of breast cancer in your family please talk to your doctor to see if you should begin screening before the age of 40.
However, if you, or a loved one, is concerned about a breast abnormality, it is important to contact a medical provider. This is especially true if new breast abnormalities progress rapidly or last for more than two months. You can schedule an appointment with one of our breast health medical providers by filling out our online form below or by contacting: