What are the Symptoms and Signs of Breast Cancer?

Paying attention to your body and being aware of changes can save your life. Breast cancer is a disease affecting the breast tissue caused by excessive cell growth. This abnormal growth often results in the development of a cancerous tumor. The disease is most common with women but men can get breast cancer as well. Untreated, breast cancer can spread to regional lymph nodes and tissues and, ultimately, throughout the entire body.

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Breast cancer discovered in an early stage, before it metastasizes or spreads, often has a good prognosis. Early detection is key and being aware of warning signs and symptoms can be the difference between a positive prognosis and a long and possibly unsuccessful treatment. Here we give 10 signs you should pay attention to during your monthly breast self-exam.

1. Changes in the breast’s shape or size
Differences between two healthy breasts in shape and size are not uncommon – most breasts are asymmetrical even when this is hardly noticeable. Breasts also change in shape and size due to aging, weight variations and hormonal changes. However, a sudden change in the appearance of one breast can be a serious concern. It can be caused by an infectious cancerous swelling or a growing lump, especially when this lump is growing fast or close to the surface.

2. A lump or other unusual mass in the breast
The first indication of breast cancer is often an unusual lump in the breast. Malignant or cancerous lumps are often hard, don’t shift, and are irregularly shaped. On the other hand, lumps are also not uncommon in healthy breast tissue. That’s why having regular mammograms, physical check-ups, and self-examination are crucial for the detection and monitoring of benign lumps. Any type of lump must be examined by a physician, but this most urgently applies to a newly developed lump.

3. Changes in the nipple and areola
Any change in the nipple and areola can indicate a growth of cancerous cells in the breast. The symptoms of a rare type of cancer called Paget’s disease of the breast, are limited to the nipple and areola. Paget’s disease of the breast develops in the nipple ducts. Indications of this disease are, among other things, an inverted (turned inwards) or flattened nipple, flaky or scaly skin on the nipple, discharge from and thickening of the nipple, or an abnormal sensation in the nipple.

4. Dimpling of the breast
Dimpling of the breast skin can indicate an abnormal growth. This mostly happens when a lump develops close to the skin surface, although it can also occur when there is no lump. Dimpling can be seen as indents or grooves in the breast and it can be the first sign of breast cancer. However, a dimpled or wrinkled appearance can also be caused by other, non-cancerous afflictions and factors.

5. Nipple discharge
Nipple discharge is quite common with healthy breasts and, generally, no cause for concern. But there are some distinct differences that distinguish normal discharge from (pathological) discharge caused by cancer. Normal discharge often occurs in both breasts while pathological discharge most often only occurs in the affected nipple. Normal discharge is yellowish, greenish, or milky white while cancerous discharge is more brown or transparent. Bloody discharge is particularly suspect. Pathological discharge occurs in the early stages of breast cancer but it rarely is the only symptom.

6. Swollen lymph nodes
As breast cancer develops it can spread to the regional (nearby) lymph nodes. Affected lymph nodes can be felt as a hard lump under the skin, generally under the armpits or around the collar bone. Swollen lymph nodes are seldom discovered before other breast cancer symptoms have been detected.

7. Superficial inflammation of the breast
Breast cancer can also cause an inflammation of the breast skin. Common indicators are a reddish or purplish discoloring of the breast, similar to a rash, and a thickening or flaky skin. The breast can feel warm, sensitive and soft to the touch. Such an inflammation is particularly symptomatic for Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), which occurs when cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the breast tissue. This type of cancer is very aggressive and spreads quickly so early detection is vital.

8. Changes in texture
Breast cancer can cause the breast to look differently. The change in texture is often associated with IBC and often goes hand in hand with other symptoms of superficial inflammations that characterizes this type of cancer.

9. Symptoms outside the breast area
Breast cancer can result in symptoms found outside the breast area, the so-called non-breast-related symptoms. Detecting breast cancer via non-breast-related symptoms is difficult because of their general nature. Such symptoms often include fatigue, weight loss, back pain, and shortness of breath (dyspnea). Breast cancer is seldom identified or diagnosed based on just non-breast-related symptoms.

10. Symptoms in an advanced stage
When undetected and untreated, breast cancer can spread (metastasize) to the lymph nodes, tissues, and organs. Cancer that has metastasized from the breast is called secondary breast cancer and often affects the liver, lungs, and bones. The signs of metastases often depend on the tissue or organ to where the cancer has spread, but generally include a general feeling of malaise, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and consistent respiratory disorders.

Never wait to make an appointment.
It is impossible to identify every sign of breast cancer. Meaning that when it comes to early detection, you can be the strongest weapon in a successful treatment of breast cancer. The general rule is that every consistent, noticeable change must be examined by a physician.

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