The symptoms of breast cancer can vary depending upon the type of breast cancer growing. Some breast cancers have no obvious symptoms at all and others will form lumps, skin changes or even appear to be an infection. Other conditions that are noncancerous, such as a true infection or cyst, will also have symptoms that are similar to those of breast cancer. For this reason, it is very important for a woman to do a monthly breast examination and have an annual mammogram as well as physical examination by her physician. The combination of these four factors, self exam, mammogram, annual examination and knowledge of the symptoms of breast cancer, will increase the chances that any breast cancer that develops will be found early. (1)
Although cancer is a scary word, breast cancer is no longer considered a death sentence and every day there are more and more survivors. The increase in survival rates can be attributed to the advances in treatment, drug therapy and advancements in the recognition of symptoms. Unfortunately, many times early breast cancer does not cause symptoms which are noticeable to a woman. She may find a lump on self-examination or have one discovered on mammogram before she notices any symptoms.
Some types of breast cancer will exhibit symptoms early so there is no reason to panic unnecessarily if you notice symptoms without having discovered a lump. The most common symptoms are a lump in the breast, nipple discharge or retraction of the nipple. Some women will notice a unilateral breast enlargement that was not there before. Most women are not symmetrical in size and have probably noticed a difference in size. Any growth of one breast over the other after puberty is a signal that something is wrong and that individual breast. (2)
Another symptom of breast cancer may include dimpling of the surface of the breast or an orange peel texture to the skin over the breast. Some women may experience pain in the chest area or breast pain or tenderness. Because many breast cancers are related to hormonal changes, or may secrete hormones of their own, women may also experience decreased libido or vaginal pain, especially with sexual intercourse.
Cancer anywhere in the body can cause weight loss and enlargement of the lymph nodes. This is also true in women who suffer from breast cancer. Any lymph node enlargement is usually noted under the arms. The veins may also become visible on the breast as an enlargement inside the breast tissue forces them to the surface. Because of the altered structure of the breast the nipple may also change position and become retracted, indented or off-center. The nipple can also become scaly or have a bloody or clear discharge.
Any lump that is felt during self-examination may be no larger than a pea. It can feel like a marble and hardened under the skin. It may or may not be movable. Another symptom of breast cancer may only be noticeable during a self breast examination. In other words, the density or a mass of the breast may change. If the woman does a monthly breast exam, at the same time each month during her menstrual period, she will notice the differences over the month and will be much more likely to find something that is different versus a physician who may do a breast exam on her only once a year. (3)
Once a woman discovers she may have symptoms of breast cancer she should make any appointment with her gynecologist or primary care physician as soon as possible. The physician will want to know when and how the first lump was noticed and if there are any other symptoms that she has experienced, including fever or chills. Be sure to point out where the lump is located and if you have had any type of injury to the breast tissue in the past several months. Any hormones, medications, supplements or alternative medicine remedies may affect the formation of lumps in the breast and should be reported to your physician at the time of your examination.
Because these symptoms can also be attributed to other noncancerous and benign conditions it is important to seek out the advice of your primary care physician and get an accurate diagnosis. Only at that point can you determine whether or not the symptoms you are experiencing are related to any type of disease or illness which may cause a significant change in your lifestyle.
(1) American Cancer Society: How is Breast Diagnosed?
(2) Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Breast Cancer Symptoms
(3) BreastCancer.org: Symptoms of Breast Cancer