11 Signs of Breast Cancer Everyone Should Know About

the torso of a person who is holding their breasts
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Roughly 1 in 8 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. So it's vital to be aware when something is awry — that is, to know the first signs of breast cancer.

"The key is to know what your healthy breasts look and feel 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 at Baylor College of Medicine.

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 the breast surgery program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. "You have to look at the whole picture — imaging, exam, and possibly biopsy — to make the final call," she explains.

And, most importantly, it's crucial to get an annual mammogram starting at 40 (or if you're high risk and over 25, every 1 to 3 years). The exam detects cancer at very early stages before there are even any signs, adds Dr. Nangia. Once there are noticeable changes, the cancer is usually more advanced, which means it's crucial to recognize the symptoms and get them checked by a doctor, ASAP.

Here, 11 of the most common signs and symptoms of breast cancer that everyone should know.

01 of 11

Lumps

a visual recreation of breast cancer cells
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A mass or lump that doesn't hurt is one of the first signs of breast cancer that most people notice, says Dr. Rao. The lump can be hard or soft, movable or fixed. Also, don't forget to check up in the tissue that extends into your armpit, she adds. 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 — it's important to show your doc every new lump.

02 of 11

Pain and Tenderness

a person talking to their doctor while cupping their breast
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Pain isn't a common symptom of breast cancer, so if you're feeling achy in the chest, chances are much more likely that your menstrual cycle is the culprit. Also, wearing the wrong bra size can cause pain just above the nipple, says Dr. Nangia. However, for those with inflammatory breast cancer, pain and tenderness in the area can often be one of the early signs. If the pain is really bad, or if it doesn't go away, you'll want to consult your doctor about it.

One sign that it has metastasized (translation: spread to other organs), though, is pain in other parts of your body, such as the low back or hips. Any pain that you have continuously for more than two weeks should get checked out, says Dr. Rao. (See also: Metastatic Breast Cancer Is On the Rise In Younger Women — Here's Everything You Need to Know)

03 of 11

Prominent Veins

a realistic anatomical view of breasts
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Veins that visually stick out on the surface of the breast can be signs of breast cancer. A mass of cancer can block the free flow of blood, causing your veins to become engorged, explains Dr. Rao. This can also be caused by activities such as breastfeeding, though, adds Dr. Nangia.

04 of 11

Nipple Discharge

a person with their shirt pulled down over one breast to reveal a breastfeeding bra, in the midst of putting a cotton round in the bra
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Anything coming out of your nipples will probably set off alarm bells, but most discharge here is actually benign, particularly if it's milky, says Dr. Nangia. "For cancer, discharge is usually unilateral, in a large amount, and bloody," she explains. Regardless of what it looks like, get this potential early sign of breast cancer checked out.

05 of 11

Redness

breast cancer
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"The skin changes 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 — which it sometimes is, especially if you're breastfeeding, adds Dr. Rao. If the redness doesn't go away, though, your doc will do a skin biopsy to rule cancer out.

06 of 11

Dimpling of the Skin

multiple rings of orange peel, a visual representation of skin dimpling
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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.

07 of 11

Small Pink Bumps

close up of a sheet of candy dots, a visual representation of red bumps as a sign of breast cancer
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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.

08 of 11

An Inverted Nipple

an umbrella floating upside down in the wind, a visual representation of nipple inversion
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In some cases, the tumor will almost tether to the duct behind the nipple or your skin, causing it to retract and pull inward. If you developed this after breastfeeding, that's normal, notes Dr. Nangia. But otherwise, have any inversions of the nipple or skin checked out, as this could be an early sign of breast cancer.

09 of 11

Swollen Lymph Nodes

a person grimacing and touching their neck, presumably because of aching lymph nodes
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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.

10 of 11

Sudden Asymmetry or Changes In Size

one large and one small tomato pictured next to each other, a visual representation of breast asymmetry
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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.

11 of 11

Prolonged Abnormalities

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"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.

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