Breast Cancer Symptoms Every Person Needs To Know

Keep these breast cancer signs on your radar—and contact your healthcare provider if you detect any of them.

While we tend to group breast cancer under one umbrella, there are many different kinds of breast cancer—and many different signs and symptoms. Some of the changes in the breasts caused by cancer might be found on a mammogram; others may change the way your breasts look or feel, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). That's why the ACS encourages people to know what their breasts normally look and feel like so they can detect any changes in them.

It's also important to note that not all changes in the breasts are cancerous. According to the ACS, most people will have some sort of benign breast changes during their lifetime.

If you find what you think might be a sign of breast cancer, it's normal to be scared. Just don't be so worried that you talk yourself into ignoring it and hope it resolves itself on its own.

"With early detection, we can have great outcomes. The five-year survival rate [at the earliest stage] is 98.5%," Jane Mendez, MD, surgical oncologist and chief of breast surgery at Miami Cancer Institute, told Health.

About 12.8% of women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer at some point during their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) (men have about a 0.13% chance of developing breast cancer during their lives). That risk rises with age, but "you're never too young to have breast cancer," said Dr. Mendez.

If you notice any of the common symptoms of breast cancer below, see your healthcare provider and have it checked out, just to play it safe. "Getting an ultrasound [to rule out breast cancer] doesn't cost much and is so easy to do," said Dr. Mendez.

Young Woman with a pain in the breasts. portrait of an attractive young woman holding her chest

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A Hard, Painless Lump

A lump is by far the most well-known—and common—breast cancer symptom, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology.

But having a lump doesn't mean you have cancer. Some breast lumps are benign cysts or one of the other numerous kinds of non-cancerous lumps and breast changes, per the ACS.

Some of these other changes include harmless bumps caused by pregnancy, normal changes in your monthly cycle, or breastfeeding, Dorraya El-Ashry, PhD, chief scientific officer of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), told Health. "Some changes can be temporary, but if the lump sticks around for more than one period cycle, visit your doctor," said El-Ashry.

Discolored Breast Skin

This symptom usually affects people in their 60s and can be a symptom of a rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer, said Dr. Mendez. According to a 2018 review of the literature published in the World Journal of Oncology, inflammatory breast cancer is rare—but aggressive—and accounts for 1 to 6% of all breast cancer cases.

How does discoloration associated with inflammatory breast cancer present itself? "[A person] might come in saying her breast is red, inflamed, and feels heavy," explained Dr. Mendez.

Age and health history matter here. If you're in your 20s or 30s and breastfeeding, discolored breast skin might point to mastitis—an infection of breast tissue often caused by a blocked milk duct.

But if you're postmenopausal and can't remember any kind of injury or bug bite affecting your breast, that may be a red flag. In that case, your healthcare provider should examine you to exclude inflammatory breast cancer.

Your Breast Has the Texture of a Golf Ball

If an area of your breast skin looks dotted with small craters, that dimpling may indicate breast cancer. The tumor may be pulling on the skin, causing irregular divots. It may also look oddly textured, like an orange peel—a symptom called peau d'orange (or "skin of the orange"), which may appear in inflammatory breast cancer, per the National Cancer Institute.

Swelling In or Around Your Breast, Armpit, or Collarbone

While various conditions can cause swelling in these areas, the ACS says that if you're experiencing it, it's worth getting checked out. Certain types of cancer can create swelling in the breast, and if cancer has spread, you might have swelling in your armpit or collarbone, since those are areas filled with lymph nodes.

Changes in Your Nipples

Some people have nipples that point out; others have nipples that are flat or point inward (aka inverted). "Some women naturally have inverted nipples, and that's not a sign of breast cancer," said Dr. Mendez. "But if you notice that your nipple is no longer erect and is now inverted, then you want to get that checked out."

Another possible sign is discharge coming out of your nipple. The only fluid that should come out of your nipple is breast milk if you're breastfeeding. Beyond that, nipple discharge, including bloody discharge, warrants a call to your healthcare provider. Nipple discharge can be caused by lots of conditions other than cancer—such as benign growth. Still, don't blow it off, especially if you have unexplained nipple discharge along with a lump.

A Quick Review

In the U.S., about 264,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,400 in men each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And approximately 42,000 women and 500 men in the U.S. die each year, per the CDC.

While changes in your breasts may be benign, you don't want to put off getting them looked at by your healthcare team. The same 2017 study published in Cancer Epidemiology also states that "about 1 in 6 women with breast cancer present with a large spectrum of symptoms other than a breast lump" and that "women who present with non-lump breast symptoms tend to delay seeking help."

Put aside your fear and seek help. If it is cancer, the earlier it's caught, the better the prognosis.

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