Ladies, listen up! Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women other than skin cancer. As such, it's vital to arm yourself with knowledge about the possible symptoms of breast cancer so you can help you protect your health. And if you experience any symptoms that might suggest the possibility of breast cancer, contact your healthcare provider right away.
1. Sometimes There Aren't Symptoms
One of the most important things you need to know about breast cancer symptoms is that there frequently aren't any symptoms early on. In fact, most breast cancers in the U.S. are diagnosed in women without symptoms who underwent a screening mammogram. That's why breast cancer screening is essential.
Talk with your doctor about your risk for breast cancer, when to begin screening if you haven't had your first mammogram and whether to be tested yearly or every other year. Factors that might influence when you start breast cancer screening include your race, body weight, physical activity level, the amount of alcohol you drink, family history of breast cancer, presence of certain genes, the ages you began and stopped menstruating, use of hormone replacement therapy and whether you've given birth and at what age.
2. A Lump Is the Most Common Symptom
Among women who experience symptoms due to breast cancer, a breast lump is the most common symptom. A 2017 study published in Cancer Epidemiology found that of 2,316 women diagnosed with breast cancer after experiencing one or more symptoms 83 percent had a breast lump. And in 76 percent of the women in the study, a breast lump was the only symptom present.
Familiarizing yourself with how with your breasts feel by examining them regularly can help you detect a new lump. If you've not yet gone through menopause, it's best to examine your breasts right after your period, since your breast tissue might be temporarily lumpy and tender before and during your period. Although most breast lumps are not due to breast cancer, any new lump should be evaluated by your doctor as soon as possible.
3. But There Are Other Breast Symptoms
An array of other breast symptoms — either alone or along with a lump — can also signal breast cancer. Breast pain is among the most common of these symptoms. Unlike the generalized breast tenderness you might experience around the time of your period, breast cancer-related pain typically affects only one breast and tends to persist rather than come and go according to your menstrual cycle.
Swelling or a change in the shape of one of your breasts might also signal an underlying breast cancer. Also be on the lookout for breast skin symptoms, including redness, scaliness, a rash, dimpling, thickening, itchiness or a sore that won't heal.
4. Your Nipples Can Show Symptoms
Breast cancer sometimes causes symptoms involving the nipple — with or without an associated breast lump. Other possible nipple-related symptoms include discoloration, soreness, scaliness, thickening, a rash or other changes in the skin of one nipple. Nipple discharge, possibly bloody, also sometimes occurs with breast cancer.
It's easiest to look for changes in the appearance of your nipples while standing in front of a mirror so you can compare them. Check whether both nipples point in the same direction, if one nipple appears flatter than the other or whether one nipple is turned inward — a symptom known as nipple inversion.
5. Symptoms Don't Always Involve the Breast
If left, undiagnosed, breast cancer might cause symptoms not involving the breast. These symptoms most frequently occur when the cancer has spread beyond the breast tissue. A lump in your armpit, lower neck or above your collar bone or swelling of one arm might signal the spread of breast cancer to nearby lymph nodes.
Other possible non-specific symptoms include unexplained fatigue or unintentional weight loss. As with other symptoms discussed, these symptoms can occur for many reasons other than having breast cancer — but they shouldn't be ignored. See your doctor without delay if you experience any of these symptoms.
- American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2018
- American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer Facts and Figures 2017-2018
- Cancer Epidemiology: Typical and Atypical Presenting Symptoms of Breast Cancer and Their Associations With Diagnostic Intervals: Evidence From a National Audit of Cancer Diagnosis
- American Family Physician: Evaluation of Palpable Breast Masses
- American Family Physician: Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Screening
- BMC Cancer: Molecular Profiles of Screen Detected vs. Symptomatic Breast Cancer and Their Impact on Survival: Results From a Clinical Series
- National Cancer Institute: Breast Cancer Risk in American Women
- European Journal of Surgical Oncology: The Frequency of Presentation and Clinico-Pathological Characteristics of Symptomatic Versus Screen Detected Ductal Carcinoma in Situ of the Breast