Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
The American Cancer Society reports that breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women, second only to lung cancer. However, it also reports that breast cancer deaths are on the decline, and this is partially due to the fact that women are doing breast self exams, and are more aware of the signs of breast cancer. Breast cancer causes many changes within the body, but it can also cause visible signs and symptoms on the outside of the body as well.
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The best known external sign of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. While a lump is also an internal sign, since it can only be felt and not seen, there are occasions when a lump is large enough to be visible. A lump can cause a physical change in the appearance, size, and shape of the breast.
Breast cancer can also cause external changes in the nipples. According to Breastcancer.org, some of these changes include the appearance of an inverted nipple (a nipple that turns inward), flakiness and redness around the nipple, and an increase in the thickness of the nipple skin. Another sign that may originate internally, but will show up externally, is a discharge of fluid from the nipple. With breast cancer, this discharge can be blood or clear fluid, but it is not breast milk.
It is not only the skin of the nipple that undergoes physical changes with breast cancer, but the skin of the entire breast can be altered. The Mayo Clinic reports that the skin can take on the appearance of an orange, becoming dimpled and pitted. The skin is no longer smooth, and can also become flaky and reddened. There are many changes going on inside the breast with breast cancer. Growths or tumors cause the breasts to change size and shape, as mentioned above, and these changes affect how the skin stretches and covers the breast.
If you experience any of the above external signs of breast cancer, see your physician immediately. Early detection of breast cancer is vital in order to successfully treat it. Even if you have had a recent mammogram that showed no internal signs of breast cancer, if you experience nipple discharge, or other external symptom, you must bring it to the attention of your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Without early detection, the risk of dying from breast cancer greatly increases.