Physical examination of the breast is one way to find breast cancer. An important way to keep up with your breast health is to be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel, and know what changes to look for. But knowing what to look for does not take the place of having regular mammograms and other screening tests. Screening tests can help find breast cancer in its early stages, even before any symptoms appear.
Benign (non-cancerous) breast conditions are much more common than breast cancer, but it is important to let your doctor know about any changes in your breast so they can be checked out right away by a doctor experienced in diagnosing breast diseases..
Below are some common breast symptoms and what they might mean.
- Lump in your breast: The most common symptom of breast cancer. Such lumps are often hard and painless, though some may be painful. There are a number of benign breast conditions (like cysts) that can cause lumps. It’s important to get your breasts checked. If it does turn out to be cancer, the sooner it’s diagnosed the better.
- Swelling in or around your breast, collarbone, or armpit: Swelling can be caused by inflammatory breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease. The swelling may occur before you feel a lump in your breast, so if you have this symptom, be sure to see a doctor.
- Skin thickening or redness: If the skin of your breast starts to feel like an orange peel or gets red, have it checked right away. Often, these are caused by mastitis, a breast infection common among women who are breast feeding. This form of breast cancer can look a lot like a breast infection, and because it grows quickly.
- Breast warmth and itching: Like skin thickening and redness, breast warmth and itching may be symptoms of mastitis – or inflammatory breast cancer.
- Nipple changes: Breast cancer may change how your nipple looks. If your nipple turns inward, or the skin on it thickens or gets red or scaly, get it checked by a doctor right away.
- Nipple discharge: A discharge, other than milk, from the nipple may be alarming, but in most cases, it is caused by injury, infection, or a benign tumor (not cancer). Breast cancer is a possibility, though, especially if the fluid is bloody.
- Pain: Although most breast cancers do not cause pain in the breast, some do. More often, women have breast pain or discomfort related to their menstrual cycle. This type of pain is most common in the week before their periods, and often goes away once menstruation begins. Some other benign breast conditions like mastitis, may cause a more sudden pain. In these cases, the pain is not related to the menstrual cycle. If you have breast pain that is severe or persists and is not related to the menstrual cycle, you should be checked by your doctor.
Prevention and Outlook
There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but some lifestyle decisions can significantly reduce the risk of breast and other types of cancer. Some include:
avoiding excess alcohol consumption
following a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
getting enough exercise
maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI)
Regular checks and screening can help detect symptoms early. Women should discuss their options with a doctor.