Learning the signs and symptoms of breast cancer can help you make the best decisions on when to get a mammogram so that doctors can catch the disease as early as possible.
Here, you'll learn from an expert what the most common symptoms of breast cancer are, including those specific to early breast cancer, metastatic breast cancer and inflammatory breast cancer.
Breast cancer symptoms
“Most breast cancers are diagnosed without any symptoms,” said Dr. Thomas Buchholz, medical director of Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center in California.
However, he noted that there are sometimes breast changes that can indicate something serious, and these should be checked out by your doctor.
So, what are the symptoms of breast cancer that people experience the most? Here are four that Buchholz said signal trouble.
New breast lump
“The most common symptom of breast cancer, if you were to have symptoms, would be the feeling of a mass,” Buchholz explained.
According to Breastcancer.org, a lump in your breast may feel hard with uneven edges and be painless, or it may feel soft, round and tender. Either could indicate cancer.
Buchholz emphasized that most lumps are benign, but you should still have them checked out by your doctor to rule out breast cancer.
“It's pretty unusual to have nipple discharge or bleeding from the nipple. If that does occur … that would be certainly something that could be related to cancer,” Buchholz advised.
The Cleveland Clinic notes that if nipple discharge is clear or bloody, it could be an indication of the disease.
“Cancer in both men and women can spread to under the arms,” Buchholz said.
He explained that when breast cancer spreads, it can do so through lymph nodes, which filter cancer and other foreign substances.
“And so, you could have kind of enlarged lymph nodes under the arm for both male and female breast cancer,” he said.
Skin retraction (inversion)
A tugging sensation on the breast skin and nipple that leads to inversion is another symptom of breast cancer, according to Buchholz.
“You could get skin retraction because the cancer can grow in some of the structures that support the breast, and it can pull on it. Like pulling on strings … inside a balloon,” he explained.
“It's a little bit more common to have a breast cancer with some sort of skin changes in the male compared to the female,” Buchholz added.
Specifically, the Mayo Clinic says male breast cancer symptoms can include:
- A painless lump or thickening in your breast tissue
- Changes to the skin covering your breast, such as dimpling, puckering, redness or scaling
- Changes to your nipple, such as redness or scaling, or a nipple that begins to turn inward
- Discharge from your nipple
In addition to the four general breast cancer symptoms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that skin changes linked to breast cancer symptoms include breast skin irritation and red, flaky skin on the breast.
Early signs of breast cancer
The Moffitt Cancer Center says that, because breast cancer is a rapid overgrowth of cells, the most common sign of early breast cancer is a lump in your breast.
Other early symptoms of breast cancer could include:
- Changes in the size of one or both breasts
- Non-breast milk nipple discharge
- Inverted nipple
- Puckering of the breast skin
- Flaking of the breast or nipple skin
- Breast pain or nipple tenderness
- Redness, thickening or puckering of breast skin
But Buchholz noted that most people won’t notice signs of breast cancer during its early stages, and it’s usually found using screening tests like mammograms or ultrasounds.
Metastatic breast cancer symptoms
“Metastatic cancer means the cancer has left the breast and has traveled to a different site in the body,” Buchholz said. “And the most common sites are the lung, the liver, the bone and the brain … when it spreads to the bone, the most common symptom would be pain.”
- Joint, back, abdominal or chest pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Abdominal bloating
- Shortness of breath
- Consistent dry cough
- Loss of balance
Inflammatory breast cancer symptoms
“It's actually cancer in the channels within the skin that's causing the problem. There are some [of] what we call lymph channels in the skin that kind of drain some fluids off the breast, and those kind of get clogged up with tumor cells,” Buchholz explained.
Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer can include:
- Red and swollen breasts
- Skin that thickens and pits, giving the appearance of an orange peel
- Breast warmth, pain, itchiness or tenderness
- One breast that’s larger than the other
- Swelling of armpit lymph nodes
- A retracted nipple
Buchholz advised that your doctor can check for signs of breast cancer when you come in for regular screenings. He also emphasized that breast cancer is curable, especially when detected early.