Breast cancer signs and symptoms

When something doesn’t seem normal or right in your body — especially on or around the breast tissue — it can feel concerning. We understand the anxiety that can come up when you notice a breast change, and we’re here to help.

While symptoms and signs are words we often hear being used interchangeably, they’re actually different things. According to medical oncologist Pallav Mehta, MD, “Symptoms of breast cancer are things our patients notice and tell us about, such as a painful breast lump or skin redness. Signs of breast cancer are identified by a healthcare professional, either through a physical exam or different kinds of tests.”

Most people who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no symptoms. And not all symptoms mean you have breast cancer. That’s why mammograms are important in addition to knowing what looks and feels normal in your body. A mammogram is a medical test that screens for signs of breast cancer.

On this page, we’ll walk you through information about symptoms you or your doctor may notice that could indicate breast cancer. We’ll also share information and guidelines about getting regular mammograms. A mammogram can help find breast cancer before symptoms even show up.

Common symptoms among all types of breast cancer

A lump (or lumps) in or around the breast is the most common symptom of breast cancer. Lumps can be soft or hard. They can be tender. They can cause pain or be painless. They might move a little when you touch them, or they might feel matted down in place. Lumps can also be benign (non-cancerous).

Lumps that are more likely to be cancerous are painless, hard, and have irregular edges. But softer breast lumps can sometimes be cancerous. No matter how a lump feels, see your doctor if you notice any new lumps or changes in your breast.

Other common symptoms of breast cancer that are noticeable in or on the breast (local to the breast) include:

  • Swelling of part or all of the breast
  • Skin dimpling or puckering, including an orange-peel appearance
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • A nipple that turns inward
  • Red, dry, flaking, or thickened breast skin or nipple
  • Nipple discharge that is not breast milk, with or without bleeding
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone

These symptoms can happen at any stage of breast cancer. They can also happen with any type of breast cancer, including hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive, or triple-negative breast cancer. 

When breast cancer develops, it usually begins inside a breast milk duct or milk-producing lobule; the cells are non-invasive. Invasive breast cancer is breast cancer of any stage that is no longer confined to a duct or lobule. This can mean that cancer has travelled to surrounding breast tissue, or to nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an aggressive, rapidly developing type of invasive breast cancer.  People who have IBC usually don’t have a lump. Symptoms of IBC include:

  • Breast swelling
  • Skin color changes in the breast, such as redness
  • Breast pain
  • Skin thickening
  • A heaviness in the breast
  • Dimpling of the breast skin that looks like an orange peel
  • A feeling of warmth or heat in the breast

Breast changes that happen slowly over months or years are unlikely to be IBC.

Metastatic breast cancer symptoms

Breast cancer is considered stage IV, or metastatic, when it travels outside the breasts and nearby lymph nodes to other organs in the body. Other organs can include the bones, brain, lungs, or liver, for example. Depending on where the cancer is in the body, symptoms can include:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Appetite or weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bone pain and fractures
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry cough
  • Loss of balance
  • Frequent headaches

Male breast cancer symptoms

Common breast cancer symptoms in men are the same as those in women. These symptoms include:

  • A lump (may be painless or painful)
  • Swelling of all or part of the breast
  • Skin dimpling or puckering
  • Nipple that turns inward
  • Red or flaking nipple or breast skin
  • Nipple discharge
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or around collar bone

Breast cancer screening

Medical screening tests help healthcare professionals diagnose disease in people who don’t have any symptoms. A mammogram is a screening test doctors use to help diagnose breast cancer.

Mammograms

A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of the breast that screens for breast cancer. Mammograms help radiologists (doctors trained to interpret x-ray images) see signs of breast cancer early, often years before physical symptoms are seen or felt. That’s important, because treatments are more likely to be successful and less aggressive when cancer is found early.

In people who have no symptoms of breast cancer, a mammogram is called a screening mammogram. People experiencing symptoms are given diagnostic mammograms to study a specific area of concern. Diagnostic mammograms are also given to gather additional images if something looks abnormal on a screening mammogram. 

The American Cancer Society recommends mammograms once a year for women at average risk starting at age 45.

Learn more about mammograms.

Breast self-exams and clinical exams

Some people do a self-breast exam at home to look and feel for problems or changes in the breast tissue. But experts don’t think self-exams or clinical breast exams done by a doctor help find breast cancer early. Research shows you’re more likely to feel a lump or see an area of concern in your breast when bathing, getting dressed, or doing another day-to-day activity.

However, it’s still important to understand what does look and feel normal and what doesn’t look and feel normal in your breasts. If something feels out of the ordinary, trust your gut and let your doctor know.

Also, while the American Cancer Society does not recommend breast self-exam or clinical breast exams  as part of a breast cancer detection routine, this does not mean that these exams should never be done, especially if you are at higher-than-average risk for breast cancer. Talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.

Are you experiencing symptoms?

Early detection leads to more successful treatment of breast cancer. If you notice any symptoms of breast cancer, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Pallav K. Mehta, MD

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Updated 
November 12, 2020
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