11 Signs of Breast Cancer Every Woman Should Know About
Possible Signs of Breast Cancer
Your girls do a lot for you—deliver confidence, feed your offspring, enhance pleasure. The least you can do for them is to be aware when something is awry—that is, know the first signs of breast cancer. Roughly one in eight women develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime and it's the second most commonly-diagnosed cancer among women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.
"The key is to know what your healthy breasts look and feels like, and if you notice any changes go to your doctor for an exam and work-up if needed," says Julie Nangia, M.D., medical director of breast oncology at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Baylor College of Medicine. (Discover more about why becoming familiar with your breast density is ever so vital.)
Now, these changes definitely don't mean you 100 percent have breast cancer. And even if they do, it could be signs of a benign tumor, says Roshni Rao, M.D., chief of breast surgery at Columbia University Medical Center. "You have to look at the whole picture—imaging, exam, and possibly biopsy—to make the final call," says Dr. Rao.
And, most importantly, it's crucial to get an annual mammogram starting at 40 (every 1 to 3 years for high-risk women over 25). The exam detects cancer at very early stages before there are even any signs, Nangia adds. (Scared to get your first mammogram? We asked six women to share what it's really like.)
Once there are noticeable changes, the cancer is usually more advanced. That means it's crucial to recognize the symptoms and get them checked by a M.D. ASAP. Here, 11 of the most common signs and symptoms of breast cancer that every woman should know about.
A mass or lump that doesn't hurt is one of the first signs of breast cancer that most women notice, says Dr. Rao. The lump can be hard or soft, movable or fixed—anything that feels different or abnormal anywhere in the breast should get checked out. And just because you've had a prior mass that turned out to be a cyst or fibroadenoma (a type of benign tumor) doesn't mean this one is the same—show your doc every new lump. And don't forget to check up in the tissue that extends into your armpit, adds Dr. Rao. (ICYMI: Serena Williams is fiercely fighting for women to ace self-exams with a topless music video for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.)
Pain and Tenderness
Only 15 percent of breast cancer is painful, so if you're feeling achy in the chest, chances are much more likely that you're just wearing the wrong bra size. This can cause pain just above the nipple, says Dr. Nangia. However, for women with inflammatory breast cancer, pain and tenderness in the area can often be one of the early signs of breast cancer. One sign that it has metastasized (translation: spread to other organs), though, is pain in other parts of your body, like low back or hips. Any pain that you have continuously for more than two weeks should get checked out, says Dr. Rao. (Related: How a Hair Stylist Detected Stage 4 Breast Cancer from Her Client's Scalp)
Veins that stick out, visually, on the surface of the breast can be signs of breast cancer. The mass of cancer can block the free flow of blood, causing your veins to become engorged, Dr. Rao explains. Dr. Nangia adds this can also be caused by activities like breastfeeding, though. (Whoa. This mother discovered she had breast cancer when her son refused to breastfeed from her right breast.)
Anything coming out of your nipples will probably set off alarm bells, but Dr. Nangia says most discharge here is actually benign, particularly if it's milky. "For cancer, discharge is usually unilateral, in a large amount, and bloody," she says. Regardless of what it looks like, get this potential early sign of breast cancer checked out.
"The skin chances we often see in the breast from cancer are redness with warmth," says Dr. Nangia. An overall darkening isn't of worry, but big red patches can particularly be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer (especially alongside swollen breasts). Often people mistake this as an infection, Dr. Rao adds, which it sometimes is, especially if you're breastfeeding. If the redness doesn't go away, your doc will do a skin biopsy to rule cancer out. (Related: These Fruits and Veggies Will Significantly Slash Your Risk of Breast Cancer)
Dimpling of the Skin
Another of the most common skin changes from cancer is an orange peel appearance on the skin. This happens when the cancer is pulling at the skin due to involvement, says Dr. Nangia.
Small Pink Bumps
Red spots on your breast, called papules, are often a sign of a noncancerous condition, but can also be early signs of breast cancer, explains Dr. Nangia. This can sometimes look like a rash or tiny bug bites. (Related: Breast Cancer Changed My Entire Body Forever—But I'm Finally OK with It)
An Inverted Nipple
In some cases, the tumor will almost tether to the duct behind the nipple or your skin, causing it to retract and pull in. If you developed this after breastfeeding, that's normal, Dr. Nangia says. But otherwise have any inversions of the nipple or skin checked out, as this could be an early sign of breast cancer.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph nodes are generally a sign of infection; if it's persistent, you definitely want to get it checked since it can be a sign of cancer that's spread. Swollen nodes under your armpits, in particular, are signs of breast cancer specifically.
Sudden Asymmetry or Changes In Size
Changes in the way your breasts look are a leading symptom of breast cancer, particularly swelling or shrinking, and asymmetry from one side to the other, says Dr. Nangia. (Related: Why Every Woman Should Know Her Breast Density)
"If a woman has a history of breast cancer and she has any symptoms for more than two weeks, she should go to her doctor and get a work-up if needed," says Dr. Rao. Most non-cancerous problems are better after two weeks, but if the cancer has spread, it can manifest as headaches, seizures, pain in your bones, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, even simply fatigue. (Related: Celebrities Who Have Battled Breast Cancer and Publicly Shared Their Experiences)