It is the news that no one ever wants to receive or the diagnosis that no one expects to get. There is a 1 in 8 chance that a women will develop breast cancer over the course of her life4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women—no matter your age, race, or ethnicity3.
However, buried in these bleak statistics is the promise of some good news:
Breast cancer survival rates are now higher than ever before and continue to improve year on year. More women (and men) are more educated about breast cancer and its signs and symptoms. One of the reasons we’ve seen an increase in the survival rates is that women who spot the signs of breast cancer are going to their doctors sooner. The faster a diagnosis is made, the better the chances of survival.
Breast cancer does not cause any signs or symptoms in its early stages. Signs and symptoms often appear when the tumor grows large enough to be felt as a lump in the breast or when the cancer spreads to surrounding tissues and organs. However, here are some of the symptoms to look out for1:
1- A firm or hard lump in the breast
A firm or hard lump that feels very different from the surrounding breast tissue should always be checked out by your doctor. The lump may feel like it is attached to the skin or the surrounding breast itself. You might notice that the lump does not get smaller and although it may be tender, it’s usually not painful (pain is more often a symptom of a non-cancerous condition).
Another sign of breast cancer may be that part of the tissue in the breast is getting thicker or harder. It may not feel like a lump but the sudden appearance of thicker tissue for no particular reason should also be looked at.
2- Other changes to the breast
Other changes to the breast that should always be investigated include:
- Changes in the shape or size of the breast
- Changes to the nipple, such as a nipple that suddenly starts to point inward (called an inverted nipple)
- Discharge that comes out of the nipple without squeezing it or that has blood in it
- Dimpling of the skin or the breast taking on a slightly orange hue in color
3- A lump in the armpit (called the axilla)
A lump in the armpit that wasn’t there before may also be another troubling sign. The lump likely won’t be painful or have discharge and will not disappear with time. This is different from an abscess or boil in the armpit.
4- Later signs and symptoms
As the cancer grows or possibly spreads to other parts of the body, late signs and symptoms may occur. These include:
- Bone pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Recent onset shortness of breath and/or chronic cough
- Yellowing of the skin (also called jaundice)
- Muscle weakness
If you have any of the symptoms above be sure to see your doctor right away. Additionally, make sure you stay up to date with your mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends the following timeline for mammograms2:
- Women between 40 and 44 should have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
- Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
- Finally, women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms.
For those with a family history of breast cancer (ie. mom, sister, aunt) then screening is usually started sooner.
1- Canadian Cancer Society. Symptoms of breast cancer. Last Medical Review: September 1, 2017. http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/breast/signs-and-symptoms/?region=on
2- American Cancer Society. Recommendations for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection/american-cancer-society-recommendations-for-the-early-detection-of-breast-cancer.html
3- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast Cancer Statistics. Page last reviewed: June 7, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/statistics/index.htm
4- American Cancer Society. How Common Is Breast Cancer? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/about/how-common-is-breast-cancer.html