Breast cancer can lead to characteristic symptoms. However, these symptoms can also be caused by other non-cancerous conditions, and many people diagnosed with breast cancer do not experience any symptoms at all.
In many cases, people don’t have any symptoms when they are first diagnosed with breast cancer.
Breast cancer can cause symptoms like breast lumps, skin irritation, breast or nipple pain, or nipple discharge.
Breast cancer symptoms can also be caused by many other less serious, easily treatable conditions.
Talk to your doctor anytime you notice any changes in the feeling or appearance of your breast or nipple.
It’s important to talk to your doctor about any health changes that you notice. Your healthcare team can help diagnose or rule out conditions that may be causing these signs. If you do have cancer, an early diagnosis may lead to a better outcome.
Read on to learn more about the possible symptoms of breast cancer.
Lumps in the breast or armpit
The most common sign of breast cancer is formation of a hard lump. Among women with breast cancer who have symptoms, more than four out of five have a lump in the breast or underarm area.
Lumps caused by cancer can appear in various sizes. They often feel hard and their edges may be uneven rather than perfectly round. In most cases, these lumps don’t hurt.
Breast cancer can lead to several changes in the skin of your breast or nipple, including:
- Feelings of warmth or hardness.
A rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer can lead to a skin change called peau d’orange, in which the skin appears puckered or ridged like an orange peel. People with inflammatory breast cancer also tend to have pink-, red-, or purple-tinged skin on at least a third of their breast.
Breast cancer sometimes leads to pain in the breast or nipple. This may occur in any part of your breast tissue — you may feel pain deep inside your breast, or on the surface of your skin.
Changes in appearance
If you have cancer, part of your breast may also feel swollen or more thick than usual. You may also notice swelling in the underarm area.
Your breast may also change in size or shape. This may make your breasts appear more uneven than usual.
Tumors in the breast can also make the nipples look different. If your breast swells up, your nipple may appear flat or pull inwards.
Breast cancer often forms in the cells that make the milk glands or milk ducts. These tissues may produce discharge that can leak out of the nipple. The discharge can be clear, yellowish, greenish, or bloody. It may have a pus-like appearance or seem thin.
Rare symptoms of breast cancer
In its later stages, breast cancer may cause other symptoms. You may have bone pain if cancer cells spread to your bones. Unexpected weight loss, back pain, or skin ulcers can also occur.
However, these symptoms are rare. It is more likely that you will discover breast cancer before it reaches later stages, especially if you are undergoing regular exams and screenings.
Other causes of breast cancer symptoms
Breasts are usually not even or perfectly smooth. It’s normal to experience some lumpiness or unevenness. What’s more important is whether the feel or appearance of your breasts changes over time.
Even when your breast does undergo changes, it’s much more likely to be caused by another condition besides cancer, such as:
- Fibrocystic breast changes — If your breasts feel unusually lumpy and painful before or during your period, you may have this condition. Up to half of all women may experience these symptoms at some point in their life.
- Breast cysts — This condition is a type of fibrocystic breast change that consists of lumps filled with fluid. Cysts sometimes also cause pain or nipple discharge. They may be found in one or both breasts.
- Fibroadenomas — These benign (non-cancerous) tumors can feel like hard, painless lumps in the breast.
- Mastitis — Mastitis is an infection of the milk ducts that most often occurs during breastfeeding. It can make your breasts feel lumpy and sore.
- Mammary duct ectasia — When the milk ducts become blocked, they may cause this condition. Duct ectasia may lead to symptoms like nipple pain or redness, nipple discharge, inverted nipples, and breast lumps.
- Fat necrosis — Necrosis, which can lead to a round lump that may appear bruised or dimpled, may develop after you undergo a breast treatment like surgery or radiation therapy.
You may also notice pain, swelling, or lumpiness right before or during your menstrual period. You may also get more lumps while pregnant or breastfeeding, or during menopause. Nipple discharge can also be caused by infections or by medications such as oral contraceptives (birth control pills).
Diagnosing breast cancer
You can detect some breast changes through a regular breast self-exam. During this process, you raise one arm and feel your breast and armpit for any lumps or other changes.
However, you won’t be able to tell for sure whether you have cancer on your own. You need to undergo testing such as mammograms or ultrasounds, which are imaging tests that help your doctor see inside of your breast tissue to detect any abnormalities. Additionally, your doctor may recommend a biopsy, in which they remove a small piece of tissue and study your cells under a microscope.
Because breast cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms in the early stages, it’s important to get regular mammograms. These tests can help identify any suspicious masses or tissue changes.
Any time you notice breast changes, talk to your doctor. It may feel scary to know that cancer is a possibility, but potential symptoms are much more likely to be caused by other factors.
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