While breast cancer typically doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms in its earliest stages, the widespread use of routine screenings has increased the likelihood of early detection. Nevertheless, mammograms do not detect every incidence of cancer. It is important to learn about breast cancer symptoms, perform monthly self-exams and promptly see a physician upon noticing any abnormalities.
What to look for during a breast self-exam
By developing a habit of performing monthly breast self-exams, a person can become familiar with the normal shape and appearance of his or her breasts and more readily notice any unusual changes. While the presence of one or more potential breast cancer symptoms does not necessarily indicate cancer, it is important to follow up with a physician about any of the following:
- A lump or thickening of tissue in the breast or underarm area
- An inexplicable change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- Unexplained swelling or shrinkage of one or both breasts
- A recent onset of breast asymmetry
- Dimpling anywhere on the breast surface
- An inverted nipple
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
- Unusual nipple tenderness
- Skin irritation on one or both breasts
- Redness, warmth or a change in breast skin texture (a thick, pitted appearance similar to that of an orange peel)
- Breast pain
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump. Many lumps are benign (noncancerous), but it is impossible to know without medical evaluation. Malignant (cancerous) lumps are usually painless, hard and irregularly shaped, but they may also be tender, soft and rounded.
To perform a breast self-exam, begin by carefully looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders back and head high. You can then raise your arms and continue to check for any changes in appearance. Next, lay down on a comfortable surface and feel for lumps with the pads of two or three fingers. Use your right hand to examine your left breast, and your left hand to examine your right breast. Make sure to fully cover each breast with firm (but not hard) pressure, including the tissue towards your collarbone and underneath both arms. Finally, repeat the process while sitting or standing.
What are the causes of breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops when cells in the milk-producing ducts, lobules or other breast tissues begin to grow and divide atypically, eventually crowding out healthy cells and forming a mass. However, the specific causes behind this abnormal cell growth are not yet understood. If left unaddressed, breast cancer can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body like the brain and lungs.
Are there risk factors for breast cancer?
While the scientific community is still exploring what specifically causes breast cancer, multiple risk factors for this disease have been identified. A risk factor is any trait or behavior that may increase an individual’s chances of being diagnosed with a disease. Established risk factors for breast cancer include:
- Being female
- Being 55 or older
- Having a family history of breast cancer
- Inheriting certain gene mutations (most notably BRCA1 and BRCA2)
- Starting menstruation before age 12
- Beginning menopause after age 55
- Having radiation therapy around the chest to treat a previous cancer
Several other breast cancer risk factors are lifestyle-related choices that can be controlled. Behaviors or decisions that may increase breast cancer risk include:
- Drinking alcohol
- Living a sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight
- Not having children or having children after age 30
- Using birth control medicine, shots or implants
- Taking hormone therapy after menopause
It’s important to remember that anyone—including men—can develop breast cancer. Individuals who experience breast cancer symptoms should promptly speak with a physician, even if they do not have any known risk factors.
Can I lower my breast cancer risk?
It’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of breast cancer. Even so, there are multiple steps that can be taken to help lower the chances of being diagnosed. Many of these measures promote good overall health and may also help reduce the risk of other cancers.
Lose excess weight
Being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer after menopause and contributes to multiple other dangerous conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat and processed foods may also help reduce cancer risk.
Multiple studies have indicated that routinely engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity may lower the chances of developing breast cancer. Moderate physical activity describes going on a brisk walk, while vigorous activity is exercise that causes sweating and an increased heart rate.
Limit or avoid alcohol use
There is a well-established link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. This is especially true for women who drink more than one alcoholic beverage per day (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor).
Consider genetic counseling and testing
Men or women who have a family history of breast cancer may want to consider genetic counseling or testing. By speaking with a genetic counselor and undergoing a simple saliva or blood test, an individual can learn if he or she has inherited gene mutations (most notably BRCA1 and BRCA2) that may significantly increase breast cancer risk. People who test positive for BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations are often encouraged to undergo more frequent and thorough breast cancer screening.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
If a physician notices a breast lump, change in breast skin or another potential symptom of breast cancer, the next step is usually to schedule a mammogram (an X-ray of the breast) or another imaging method such as ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Based on imaging results, a biopsy to remove and examine a small amount of breast tissue may be performed to definitively diagnose or rule out cancer.
Individuals who are concerned about breast cancer symptoms are welcome to consult with the multispecialty team Moffitt Cancer Center’s Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program, where diagnostics, treatment and supportive care services are available in a single, convenient location. To speak with a Moffitt physician about breast cancer symptoms or your individual risk, complete our new patient registration form online or call 1-888-663-3488.