Just Some Signs of Breast Cancer to Keep an Eye Out for

·7 min read
Photo credit: Katie Buckleitner
Photo credit: Katie Buckleitner

Maybe you're here because you noticed something a lil' funky going on with your boobs. Or your late night anxiety spiral has you fully convinced that your itchy nipple is a sign of breast cancer, even though you're lump-free.

After all, there are some changes in life that are welcome (like the lyrical glow-up on the 10-minute version of “All Too Well”) and some, like changes in your breasts, that are absolutely not.

First of all, take a deep breath. “The vast majority of any changes, seen or noticed, are not breast cancer and may reflect just benign changes in the breast,” says Erica L. Mayer, MD, MPH, senior physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Boobs can change for lots of reasons that are perfectly harmless. Your period, for one thing, can cause regular fluctuations in how your boobs feel. “Pregnancy or breastfeeding can absolutely cause changes to the size, texture, and character of the breast tissue,” says Dr. Mayer. Getting an infection in the breast area—say from a clogged milk duct—can also cause changes to that area. Regardless of the potential cause, “it's still as important to get any change checked out to provide reassurance and also ensure that somebody is getting the appropriate screening and monitoring that they need,” she says.

Most breast cancer cases are detected through routine mammograms, says Dr. Mayer. That’s because most breast cancer patients are over 50 and in many cases already getting regular mammograms—the gold standard of breast cancer screening. “In younger women, who are perhaps younger than the time when mammograms are usually initiated, breast cancers may present as a mass that someone might feel themselves or a doctor may feel during a clinical breast examination,” she says.

That’s why Dr. Mayer says it’s so important for people to be familiar with the texture, appearance, and consistency of their breasts. “Each person’s body is different, and it’s important to know what your body feels like,” she says, “so that if there were a change… you can recognize it and bring it to the attention of a medical [professional].” Just set aside some time every so often to check out your boobs in the mirror, give them a feel, and make a mental note of any potential changes.

And if you do notice something out of the ordinary (like one of the 10 signs of breast cancer below) don't panic. Reach out to your doc and they'll help you get to the bottom of it.

1. A new lump or bump

Feeling a lump on your breasts that wasn't already there can obviously be a potential sign of breast cancer. “If someone has a new lump or a bump underneath their arm, which sometimes can reflect where our lymph nodes are, that’s something also that can be checked out,” adds Dr. Mayer. Not all lumps are cancerous—they could be caused by benign cysts, blocked milk ducts, or harmless fibroadenomas—but you should talk to your doctor ASAP to have any new lump screened and properly treated if necessary.

2. Skin dimpling

If you're checkin' out your breasts and you notice an indentation (aka a dimple) in the skin that wasn't there before, it could be a sign of breast cancer. Basically, dimpling can mean the tissue is being pulled down by a form of cancer growing inside the breast, says Dr. Minkin. She recommends having your ob-gyn take a look at it to figure out what's going on. Other breast skin changes that are potential red flags include skin thickening and enlarged pores, “almost like the way an orange peel looks,” says Dr. Mayer.

3. A newly-inverted nipple

Some people are born with inverted nipples, meaning they face inward instead of outward. If you fall into that category, don't sweat it. But if your nips usually point straight ahead and suddenly one flips inward, that can be an indicator of breast cancer, explains Dr. Minkin. Again, you'll want to talk to your doctor to be sure.

4. Bloody or discolored nipple discharge

Nipple discharge on its own is rarely a sign of breast cancer...with some exceptions. Brown or green nipple discharge might point to breast cancer, says Heather Irobunda, MD, an ob-gyn based in Queens, New York. Or if you have nipple discharge along with other symptoms (like a lump in your breast), that should raise a red flag.

If you notice bloody discharge coming out of one or both of your nipples, you should alert your doc. A benign condition in one of your milk ducts, called a papilloma, could be causing the discharge—not breast cancer—but it's best to check in with your ob-gyn just in case, says Dr. Minkin.

5. Super itchy nipples

Most of the time, itchy nipples are just a result of something like dry skin or your laundry detergent irritating the area. However, if you start moisturizing regularly and switch to a sensitive skin detergent but your nipples are still so. itchy. no matter how much you scratch them, it could be a sign of breast cancer, says Dr. Minkin. (The skin around your nipples may also be dry, flaky, and rash-like in this case, adds Dr. Mayer.)

6. An inflamed breast

If you look down and notice that one of your boobs is bright red or purple and swollen, you definitely want to check in with your doc. That can be a sign of something called inflammatory breast cancer, Dr. Minkin explains. But to put your mind at ease, inflammatory breast cancer makes up about 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses—so it's pretty rare.

7. A change in the size or shape of your breast

Here's why that idea of breast self-awareness that Dr. Mayer explained above is so key: A change in the size or shape of your breast can be an indicator of breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. So if you're not familiar with what your boobs look like on the reg, you might miss an important change in their appearance. However, just keep in mind that breasts can also change size due to weight fluctuations, age, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and even throughout the menstrual cycle—so it’s important to keep potential changes in context with what else is going on with your health.

8. Unexplained weight loss

Suddenly dropping some pounds without any lifestyle changes is another possible sign of breast cancer, says Dr. Irobunda. There will usually be other symptoms (like the ones on this list) that go along with the weight loss to indicate that you may have the condition, though, adds Dr. Minkin. In other words, unexplained weight loss by itself isn't necessarily a sign of breast cancer.

9. Unusually heavy or swollen breasts

If your breasts feel extra heavy or swollen—and you’re not breastfeeding—it can be a potential sign of breast cancer, says Dr. Mayer. This is also known as the “letdown” sensation, aka the tingly or full feeling that you get when your breasts are full with milk, says Dr. Irobunda. Pay attention to it, and if you have any of the other symptoms on this list in addition to the letdown sensation, consult your doctor.

10. Breast pain

“Breast pain is not a common way for breast cancer to present,” says Dr. Mayer, but it is a potential symptom, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As Dr. Minkin mentioned earlier, hormonal changes during your menstrual cycle could also be to blame. So if your boobs hurt for a couple of days, stay calm. You'll probably feel better after your period. If the pain persists, that's when you should call your doctor.

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