Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms

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What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer? Most people are familiar with a breast lump as a possible symptom of breast cancer, but there are actually several different symptoms you should know. Here are seven things that you may observe and why you should discuss them with your doctor.

A Lump or Thickening in Your Breast or Armpit

Some lumps or swelling in your breast tissue may be due to hormonal changes. But if a lump or thickening persists, whether it is in the breast or in the armpit area, it may be a cause for concern. Swelling in the armpit, where the lymph nodes are located, may indicate that the body is fighting an invasion. A lump in the breast tissue may indicate a cyst, or it may indicate a problem in the duct or the lobes. It’s important to see your doctor if you have a lump or swelling. Further tests such as a mammogram, breast ultrasound, breast MRI, or breast biopsy may be needed to determine if the changes are benign or could be breast cancer.

A Change in the Size or Shape of Your Breast

If your breast changes size or shape after puberty, and especially if only one breast is changing, it may signal that milk ducts or the lobes deeper within the breast are swelling. This could be due to fibrocystic breast disease or regular monthly hormonal cycles, but could also be a warning sign of something more serious. If the changes aren’t associated with your regular monthly changes, talk to your doctor. When you do your monthly exams, it can be helpful to look in the mirror and become familiar with the differences between your breasts, so that you are more likely to detect any subtle changes in size or shape.

Fluid Leaking From Your Nipple

Between the ages of 41 and 58, there may be a small bit of non-bloody leakage from the nipples of both breasts. This leakage is usually due to hormonal changes and is not usually worrisome. If the fluid is leaking, however, from only one nipple, is a new discharge, or is bloody, there are several tests that can be done to evaluate the cause. Make an appointment and talk to your doctor.

A Change in the Size or Shape of Your Nipple

Changes in body weight or natural changes that come with age may affect the size or shape of the nipples. However, if a nipple retracts (pulls in) and does not easily return to its normal shape, see your doctor or a nurse practitioner for a clinical breast exam. If there is a problem with the milk ducts which are just below the surface of the nipple and areola, then having a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound may help diagnose the trouble.

Changes in the Color or Texture of Your Nipple or Areola

If you observe dimples, puckers, or a rash on the skin of your nipple or the areola, (darker skin that surrounds the nipple) and these symptoms persist, check with your doctor to determine what action to take. One unusual type of breast cancer called Paget’s disease of the nipple starts out in the form of a rash on the nipple. When caught and dealt with at an early stage, this is a very curable condition.

Unusual Pain in Your Breast or Armpit

If you are having breast pain, note whether or not it is changing with your monthly period, and if it is present in one or both breasts. While uncomfortable, if it is normal for you, it may not be worrisome. But if you have pain which occurs off-cycle or in only one breast or armpit, get it checked out. Keeping a good record of your cycles will help you understand hormonal changes in your breasts, and also helps your doctor and nurse determine what may be happening in your body.

Everything is Connected

Our bodies go through cycles and changes, some of which are due to age, weight gain or loss, hormones, medications, pregnancy, stress, or changes in diet. Some of us are very aware of living in our bodies, while others of us live more in our minds or in our emotions. In order to have and keep our health, it’s good to be aware of our body and its rhythms.

Just as getting a toothache can seem to make your entire head hurt, or pulling a muscle in your leg causes you to limp and throws you off balance, finding a change in your breast affects your overall health and may signal a need to get a checkup or a diagnostic screening.

Knowing your body’s normal changes helps you deal wisely with your health. Regular communication with your health care team can allay fears and help you raise your defenses against disease.

Bottom Line on the Many Possible Symptoms of Breast Cancer

There are many possible symptoms of breast cancer and other breast abnormalities in addition to finding a lump. It’s important to be mindful not only to do your self-breast exams, but to note any changes in the size or shape of your breasts, nipples, or areola, as well as any rashes, dimpling, or thickening of your skin. Symptoms such as nipple discharge are often due to benign causes, but can sometimes be a sign of breast cancer.

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