Breast Cancer Symptoms

Each year, over 200,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer. Knowing the symptoms can help you get a diagnosis sooner and start treatment early.

woman doing a self-examination for breast cancer

Jelena Stanojkovic / Getty Images

Breast cancer is a condition that occurs when cells in the breast become abnormal and begin to grow uncontrollably. These cancerous cells can start to grow in the breast lobes that produce milk or in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple. In rare cases, the cancer starts under the skin of the breast through the bloodstream or lymphatic system (a network throughout the body that consists of the lymph, lymph nodes, and vessels).

Once a diagnosis of breast cancer is made, it is given a stage, from 0 to 4, based on how advanced the cancer is. The higher the number, the more the cancer has progressed. 

It is common for people with breast cancer to not experience symptoms. This is why it is so important to be aware of breast cancer symptoms, have routine mammogram screenings (X-rays used to examine the breast), and speak to a healthcare provider if you notice any of these warning signs.

Breast Lumps 

As cancer cells continue to grow, they can form a mass, or tumor in the breast. This is commonly referred to as a breast lump. While breast lumps are a more common sign of breast cancer, most lumps that occur in the breast are not cancerous (benign).  

Cancerous breast lumps can be soft or hard and painless or tender. Most cancerous breast lumps tend to have one or more of the following:

  • Shaped irregularly with rough edges
  • A “pebbly” surface
  • Hard to the touch
  • Stable and will likely not move during a breast exam
  • Skin with a different appearance or texture than the rest of the breast

Lumps can appear on the breast, near the nipple, or under the armpit. However, a cancerous lump most often occurs in the upper-outer section of the breast, close to the armpit.

Skin Changes

The presence of breast cancer can cause a variety of skin changes on the breast. These changes may include:

  • Thickening: The skin around your breast thickens or becomes swollen. 
  • Dimpling: The skin starts to dimple and looks like the texture of an orange. 
  • Redness: The skin becomes inflamed. If you have a lighter skin tone, the redness may appear pink. If you have a darker skin tone, the redness can look dark red or maroon. 
  • Rash: Arash on your breast makes your skin dry, rough, or flaky. 
  • Puckering or tethering: Your skin tissue may be pulled inward, causing your skin to look dented. 

Nipple Changes

As breast cancer spreads, you may notice changes to your nipple. Some of these changes may include:

  • Discharge: Your nipple can produce a liquid that is not breast milk. The appearance of the liquid can vary between milky and water, thick and thin, and brown or clear. In some cases, the discharge may have blood.
  • Inversion: Your nipple may turn inward and appear inverted.
  • Dryness: Your areola (the area around your nipple) can look dry or flaky. 

Breast Shape and Size

While changes in the shape and size of your breasts can be normal as you age, sudden changes to your breasts may be a warning sign of breast cancer. 

You may notice your breasts suddenly swell up or shrink in size. While it is normal for breasts to naturally look a little different from one another, the symmetry of your breasts may also change. You may want to notify your healthcare provider if you notice significant changes to the appearance of the size and shape of your breasts.

Symptoms for Metastatic Breast Cancer  

Metastatic breast cancer occurs when the cancer has metastasized or spread beyond the breast tissue and into other areas of the body. This commonly occurs in stage 4 of breast cancer. If you are in this stage, some additional symptoms you may have include:

  • Chest, joint, or bone pain
  • Numbness in your body
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Vision changes
  • Vomiting or nausea 
  • Chronic or dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Unintentional weight loss

Breast Cancer Symptoms in Males 

Breast cancer primarily affects people assigned female at birth. Those who are assigned male at birth may also receive a breast cancer diagnosis, although it is rare (less than 1% of all breast cancer cases).

Most breast cancer symptoms between males and females are similar. However, males do not usually experience changes in the size and shape of their breasts. This is because males generally have less estrogen—and estrogen causes the breasts to grow and change in size.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you notice any changes to your breasts and experience any of the symptoms above, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. This is especially true if you are over age 40, as you are more likely to develop breast cancer after this age. Getting tested can help you get an early diagnosis and figure out a treatment plan, if necessary.

At your appointment, your healthcare provider may perform various tests such as a mammogram, ultrasound (non-invasive medical imaging), or biopsy (taking and examining a small sample of breast tissue). They may also ask you about your family history, previous breast surgeries or implants, and medications you are currently taking. 

Visiting a clinic or hospital can make some people nervous. It is OK to take a loved one to your appointment if you prefer. 

A Quick Review

Breast cancer can cause a variety of symptoms, such as a lump in the breast and changes to your breast skin and nipple. If you notice any of these warning signs or experience symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested. 

Breast cancer can spread to other parts of the body, so try to schedule yearly mammograms and go in for a check-up as soon as you spot any symptoms. You may experience breast changes that are not related to cancer. Your healthcare provider can perform diagnostic tests and answer any questions or concerns you may have.  

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is breast cancer?

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basic information about breast cancer.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

  4.  American Cancer Society. Breast cancer signs and symptoms.

  5. National Breast Cancer Foundation. Metastatic breast cancer.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer in men

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