Breast cancer does not always cause noticeable symptoms in its earliest stages. However, the widespread use of routine screening tests has greatly increased the likelihood of early detection. For instance, a low-dose X-ray examination of a breast (mammogram) may reveal a tumor long before the tumor grows large enough to be seen or felt. Because there are generally more treatment options available for early-stage breast cancer, early detection is key to achieving the best possible outcome and quality of life.
Although mammograms are highly effective, they do not detect every incidence of cancer. Therefore, it is important for everyone to learn about breast cancer symptoms and promptly see a physician if they notice anything unusual about their breasts or health.
What are the early signs of breast cancer?
Keep in mind that breast changes are common, and most are not caused by cancer. For instance, many women experience changes in their breasts before or during their menstrual periods, during pregnancy, as they approach menopause, while using hormone therapy and after menopause. What’s more, normal breast tissue may feel lumpy and many breast lumps are benign (noncancerous).
With that said, the most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump in a breast. Cancerous lumps are usually painless, hard and irregularly shaped, but they can also be tender, soft and rounded. However, it is impossible to know for sure whether a breast lump is benign or malignant (cancerous) without the help of a medical professional.
The presence of one or more breast cancer symptoms does not conclusively indicate cancer. However, it is important to follow up with a physician if you notice:
- A lump or thickening in a breast or armpit
- An unexplained change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- A recent onset of breast asymmetry (one breast has a different size, shape or position than the other)
- A newly inverted nipple
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
- Unusual nipple tenderness
- Dimpling or puckering on the surface of a breast
- Peeling, crusting, scaling or flaking of the breast skin or the pigmented area surrounding the nipple (areola)
- Redness, warmth, thickness or pitting of the breast skin (similar to an orange peel)
- Itching or skin irritation on one or both breasts
- Breast pain
If you discover a lump or another change in one or both of your breasts—even if your most recent mammogram produced a normal result—you should make an appointment with a physician for an evaluation right away.
How is breast cancer diagnosed?
If you have a breast lump or another symptom of breast cancer, your physician will perform a physical examination and likely order a mammogram or another imaging test, such as a breast ultrasound or a breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. If your physician suspects breast cancer based on the results of your imaging test, he or she may order a biopsy, which involves removing a small sample of suspicious breast tissue for analysis by a pathologist under a microscope. A biopsy is the only way to definitively confirm or rule out a breast cancer diagnosis.
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your biopsy sample will be further analyzed to determine the type of cells involved in the cancer, the aggressiveness (grade) of the cancer and whether the cancerous cells have hormone receptors. Your physician may also order further tests, such as blood work, imaging or a bone scan, to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. Your physician will take these factors and many others into account when developing your treatment plan.
What causes breast cancer?
Breast cancer develops when cells in the milk-producing ducts, lobules or other breast tissues undergo abnormal changes that cause the cells to grow and divide very rapidly. Eventually, the atypical cells may crowd out the healthy cells, then bind together and form a mass. The precise causes of the cellular mutations that lead to breast cancer are not yet well understood. If left unaddressed, breast cancer can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, such as the brain and lungs.
Are there risk factors for breast cancer?
Researchers continue to explore the possible causes of breast cancer; to date, they have identified several risk factors. A risk factor is a trait, behavior or exposure that may increase the likelihood of developing the condition. While some breast cancer risk factors can be controlled, others cannot.
Some established breast cancer risk factors that cannot be controlled 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 (for women)
- Beginning menopause after age 55 (for women)
- Having radiation therapy delivered to the chest to treat a previous cancer
Other breast cancer risk factors are lifestyle-related choices that can be controlled. For instance, some behaviors and decisions that may increase the risk of breast cancer include:
- Drinking alcoholic beverages
- Smoking or using other tobacco products
- Living a sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight or obese
- Using birth control pills, injections or implants (for women)
- Using hormone therapy after menopause (for women)
It is important to remember that anyone—male or female—can develop breast cancer. Therefore, if you have breast cancer symptoms, you should promptly speak with a physician, even if you have no known risk factors.
Can I lower my breast cancer risk?
It is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of breast cancer. Even so, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. These steps, which promote good health in general and may also help reduce the risk of other types of cancer, include:
Losing excess body weight
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of breast cancer and other potentially serious health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in red meats and processed foods can help you lose weight and reduce your cancer risk.
Being physically active
Multiple studies confirm that routinely engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity may lower the risk of developing breast cancer. An example of moderate physical activity is taking a brisk walk, while vigorous physical activity is any exercise that increases your heart rate and makes you sweat.
Limiting or avoiding consumption of alcoholic beverages
The link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer is well established. 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).
Receiving genetic counseling and testing, if appropriate
If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to consider genetic counseling or testing. By speaking with a genetic counselor and undergoing a simple saliva or blood test, you can find out if you have an inherited gene mutation, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, that may significantly increase your breast cancer risk. If you test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, your physician may suggest that you have more frequent and more thorough breast cancer screenings.
Receive individualized care at Moffitt Cancer Center
If you are concerned about breast cancer symptoms or would like to explore your risk profile, you are welcome to consult with the multispecialty team in the Don & Erika Wallace Comprehensive Breast Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, where diagnostics, treatment and supportive care services are available in a single, convenient location. To request an appointment, complete our new patient registration form online or call 1-888-663-3488. We provide every new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within one day—which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation—and we do not require a referral.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America – What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
National Cancer Institute – Understanding Breast Changes: A Health Guide for Women
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?