September 29, 2023 - 10:07 am
Next to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. One in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Some people are at greater risk than others, but it’s still important for all women to know the signs of breast cancer. Here’s what you need to know — and watch out for.
Signs of breast cancer
All of the following symptoms can be signs of breast cancer in women. However, these symptoms can also mean something else entirely. If you experience any of them, though, check with your doctor to rule out cancer.
Lump in the breast
This is the symptom that most people think of when they think of breast cancer: a lump or a bump in the breast. Breast cancer can cause lumps in the breast, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the most common causes of breast lumps are cysts and fibrocystic breast condition. If you feel a new lump of any size in your breast or your armpit, get it checked out.
Thickening of the skin
Sometimes the skin in the breast area can look or feel thicker in certain places than it normally would. Or it might feel like a ridge of tissue. This could be a sign of breast cancer.
Dimpling of the skin
Dimpling of the skin can appear in cases of inflammatory breast cancer, which is an uncommon but aggressive type of cancer. Some people compare the texture and appearance of the dimpled skin to an orange peel, with a pitted appearance known as “peau d’orange,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.
A red or purple color spreading over part of the breast may also be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. IBC tends to progress rapidly “and the entire breast can become very large, swollen, red and inflamed,” says Dr. Deanna Attai, a breast surgeon and associate clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Other changes in the skin
If you notice any other skin changes, or perhaps a rash that’s not going away, those are also worth getting checked out, says Dr. Laura Dean, a diagnostic radiology specialist in the breast imaging department at the Cleveland Clinic.
Breast pain is actually pretty common, Dean says. And if it’s pain that’s diffuse, or spread throughout the breast, it’s probably pretty normal and possibly related to hormone fluctuations. But pain that’s focused in one area of the breast, or persistent recurring pain in one spot, could be a potential symptom of breast cancer.
Pain in the nipple area might also be a sign of breast cancer.
Nipple discharge is actually not that unusual. But if it’s new, it might be worth investigating. If it’s milky or whitish or even a little green in color, it’s probably nothing to worry about, Dean says, adding that she might be more concerned about a clear or rust-colored discharge.
Retracted or inverted nipple
If you notice that one of your nipples has started to retract or pull inward, it could be a potential sign of breast cancer, Attai says.
Swollen lymph nodes
When breast cancer spreads, it often spreads to the axillary lymph nodes, which are located in your armpits. If you notice that your lymph nodes are swollen or tender, don’t ignore it.
It can be hard to know what’s really “normal” and what’s not, so Dean likes to talk to her patients about learning what’s normal for them and their breasts.
One way to be aware of abnormalities is by monitoring your breasts regularly for any changes or conducting regular breast self-exams. While the American Cancer Society doesn’t recommend self-exams as part of a routine breast cancer screening schedule for women at average risk of developing breast cancer, the ACS does note that there’s value in learning what’s normal for your breasts — and paying attention to any changes.
“I generally recommend that women have a self-awareness of their breasts, as well as their whole body,” Attai says. “Anything that seems new or doesn’t seem right should be reported to your health care provider.”
Don’t forget about mammograms
While paying careful attention to changes in your breasts is absolutely worthwhile, mammograms play a critical role, too, experts say.
Let’s say that you don’t experience any of the symptoms that you just read about. That’s not unusual — many women don’t experience any symptoms or warning signs while cancer is growing in their breast. A mammogram will detect a mass before it’s big enough for you to feel. This is called a screening mammogram because it’s performed before you have any symptoms.
“That is one reason why screening mammograms are important — to detect cancers we might not otherwise know about,” Attai says.
The earlier the diagnosis, the better. “We know that a woman’s best chance of being able to be successfully treated for breast cancer and possibly even be cured is to find the breast cancers when they are at their very smallest and their very earliest when they are the easiest to take care of,” Dean says.
The National Breast Cancer Foundation reports that the five-year survival rate for breast cancer cases diagnosed at a localized stage, where there’s no sign the cancer has spread beyond the breast, is 99 percent. And 64 percent of breast cancer cases are diagnosed at a localized stage.
Wondering if you should schedule a mammogram? The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk for breast cancer who are 45 to 54 years old should get a screening mammogram every year. Women ages 40 to 44 can choose to start getting a mammogram every year, and women 55 and older can either stick with annual mammograms or space them out to every other year. However, it’s best to talk to your doctor about your risk profile and what’s appropriate for you.
Same symptoms in men?
One final note: About 1 percent of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in men. The American Cancer Society estimates that the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer for men is 1 in 833.
“Male breast cancer most often presents as a lump, retraction of the skin or bloody discharge from the nipple,” Attai says.
If you know a man who’s developing some new or unusual symptoms, encourage them to see their doctor, too.