By: Jennifer Larson
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 her 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 in women
All of the following symptoms can be signs of breast cancer. The keyword there is can—these symptoms can also mean something else entirely. That being said, if you experience any of them, check with your doctor to rule out breast cancer.
Lump in the breast
This is the symptoms 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.
Redness in the nipple area or breast
A red or purple color spreading over part of the breast may also be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). IBC tends to progress rapidly “and the entire breast can become very large, swollen, red and inflamed,” says Dr. Deanna Attai, MD, a breast surgeon and associate clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles (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, MD, a diagnostic radiology specialist in the breast-imaging department at the Cleveland Clinic.
Breast pain is actually pretty common, says Dr. Dean. 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 areas 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 potential 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, says Dr. Dean, but adds 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, says Dr. Attai.
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 Dr. Dean likes to talk to her patients about learning what’s normal for them and their breasts.
One way to be aware of changes 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 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,” says Dr. Attai. “Anything that seems new or doesn’t seem right should be reported to your healthcare provider.”
Don’t forget about mammograms
If you’re over age 45, 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,” says Dr. Attai.
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,” says Dr. Dean.
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% 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 between the ages of 45 and 54 get a screening mammogram every year. Women between the ages of 40 and 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.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.