Breast Cancer Symptoms: 10 Hidden Signs to Look For
Cancer is not something most people like to talk about. It’s big and scary — not to mention it’s the second leading killer of Americans after heart disease. Yet, no matter how much we attempt to ignore it, cancer (and all the fear that comes along with it) is an underlying part of life. There are ways to avoid getting cancer and, depending on your family history, your chances may be more minimal than others. However, the statistics surrounding certain cancers, including breast cancer, are enough to make you stop in your tracks.
Here are the hidden signs you can look for that will assist in catching breast cancer early — when it’s the most treatable.
1. Skin texture changes
Most women aren’t vigilant about changes to the texture of their breast’s skin, but it turns out even slight skin variations could be a red flag, warns the Daily Mail. Watch out for any texture changes, such as a patch of skin that feels grainy or has a similar appearance to the skin of an orange peel. A rash around the nipple and skin that starts puckering or thickening are both major warning signs. Subtle changes in the skin can be due to the breast pulling itself in and trying to “wall off” the cancer. Examine the overall shape and look of your breasts in a mirror regularly. The skin on your breasts should be smooth to the touch.
2. Nipple discharge or changes
Unless you’re breastfeeding, have an infection, or are on certain medications, no liquids should come out of your nipple. If a milky or bloody substance shows up, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor. The National Cancer Institute says changes in their appearance is another cancer warning sign. Watch out for a nipple that reverts and points inwards into the breast or develops a rash.
When a discharge isn’t cancer
Sudden nipple discharge is definitely alarming, but there are a few situations when it likely doesn’t mean cancer. Holly Pederson, M.D., tells WebMD that if you’re experiencing discharge that only comes out if you squeeze the nipple and doesn’t occur on its own, then you’re probably in the clear. And it’ll likely only occur on one side if it’s cancer. A discharge that takes on a green, brown, or white color and occurs in both breasts is typically a sign of something else.
If your breasts are red and swollen, your body is telling you something is wrong, Healthline explains. This symptom may be caused by a breast infection or inflammatory breast cancer. The former may be mastitis, a rash that usually occurs in women who are breast-feeding and will clear up fairly quickly. If the skin on your breast turns dark and appears bruised, or your breasts feel heavy and swollen, you should seek medical help immediately.
4. One feels warm
Inflammatory breast cancer may be rare, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know what to look for. In addition to all of the other symptoms here, one breast is likely to feel warm to the touch and harder than the other. It’s with this more serious cancer that you’re likely to see the rashes, swelling, and changes in color as well, says the American Cancer Society. It’s also important to note inflammatory breast cancer often doesn’t appear on a mammogram, and it tends to occur in younger women. Knowing what to look for could save your life.
5. Changes in shape and size
Verywell says changes in size and shape may be a sign the milk ducts or lobes deep within your breasts are swelling. This may be a sign of cancer, especially if only one breast undergoes changes. If changing size is unusual for you and not connected to your monthly hormonal cycle, you may need to get a mammogram and consult your doctor.
6. Dilated veins
Keep an eye out for veins on your breasts that weren’t there previously. Dilated veins can be a sign that cancer is blocking a blood vessel. Circle of Hope says even more subtle changes to the veins in your breasts shouldn’t be ignored. If you think something is up, get it checked out.
7. Upper back pain
Upper back pain alone most likely isn’t cause for concern, but this can indicate cancer for some. Caring.com says this disease can cause pain between the shoulder blades that feels like a pulled muscle or torn ligament. This pain won’t go away with regular stretching, either — if it’s related to breast cancer, it’ll be unrelenting. The first place breast cancer typically spreads is to the spine and ribs. Spine specialists will usually look for tumors when treating chronic back pain, so it may be worth your while to get an assessment.
8. Swelling in the armpits
We all know to check for lumps in our breasts, but we don’t often think about how far our breast tissue really extends. Health Central explains if you feel swelling or a lump in your armpit, it could actually be in your breast without you realizing.
If it’s the lymph nodes in this region that feel swollen, this could also be because they’re having a reaction to cancer and trying to filter it out of your system. In this instance, it would occur in the armpit next to the cancerous breast.
Other causes of armpit lumps
If a lump in your armpit persists for weeks or gets more severe, then it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. Otherwise, don’t panic — there are many reasons you may have an underarm mass or swelling. Typically, this symptom signals infection. Perhaps you nicked yourself shaving or you developed an abscess underneath the skin. Aside from localized infections, viral issues like shingles, mononucleosis, and HIV also are known to cause lumps in the armpit.
If you need a simple guideline, consider this: A painful, movable lump usually signifies infection, and a painless lump that’s fixed in place is more likely to be cancer.
9. Breast pain
Some women with breast cancer report finding a single lump in their breast, but others may have many tiny tumors scattered throughout the tissue without even knowing it. Caring.com reports it’s these seed-like tumors that can cause breast and chest pain, particularly if they’re right behind the nipple or in the milk ducts. This pain can vary, but some women report feeling a stabbing sensation or electric shock. If you see a doctor about this symptom, it’s likely they’ll give you an antibiotic and think it’s an infection. It very well may be, so take the full course of medication and see how you feel. If you’re still feeling the pain, report back immediately.
10. A soft mass in the breast
When you’re checking for lumps in your breast, you may expect to feel a painless, hard mass. The ACS reminds us these harder lumps are the ones that usually signal the disease, but softer masses may also be cancerous. For some people, the tissue may feel rounded, soft, and tender. If you feel an abnormality in your breast that doesn’t feel like a defined lump, it’s still important to get it checked.
Can you reduce your risk?
You can’t beat genetics, but there are lifestyle changes you can make that can greatly reduce your risk of breast cancer. Mayo Clinic recommends limiting yourself to one alcoholic drink per day, avoiding cigarettes at all costs, and exercising regularly. These are generally good guidelines to abide by for a healthy and long life, but the list doesn’t end there. Breast-feeding is also thought to reduce your risk. The longer you choose to breast-feed your child, the more beneficial it is in warding away cancer.
You should also know hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms can increase your chances of getting breast cancer. Long-term exposure to hormone therapy, radiation, or even some environmental pollution will put you at unnecessary risk.
How to perform a self-exam
Not everyone with breast cancer feels a lump prior to their diagnosis, but the National Breast Cancer Foundation says 40% of diagnosed breast cancers are found because the woman first felt an unusual mass. This means if you’re not performing a self-exam at least once a month, you should really start.
You can easily check while lying down — put your right arm behind your head and a pillow under your right shoulder. Move the pads of your fingers in a circular motion all along the right breast — and don’t forget the armpit area, too. You’ll be able to feel for any unusual lumps this way because the breast tissue will be evenly spread along the chest wall.
Evie Carrick also contributed to this story.