For American women, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer after skin cancer. On average, one in eight women and one in 1,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.
Thanks to breast cancer awareness initiatives launched by charities including Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, most U.S. women and men know that if they, or a loved one, discover a lump in their breast, they should be screened for breast cancer. You may be surprised to learn there's a type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer, accounting for less than 5% of all cases, that doesn't develop a lump. Instead, this type of cancer blocks the lymph vessels, causing fluids to back up and generating unusual symptoms including persistent breast itching, nipple discharge, and a mark that looks like an insect bite that doesn't go away.
Beyond the Lump: Lesser Known Breast Cancer Warning Signs
The more familiar you become with your breasts, the more likely you'll be to notice changes. While lumps sometimes form deep within breast tissue (meaning in the early stages they can only be detected by a mammogram), other breast cancer red flags occur on the surface of the breast. They're easily detectable - if you know what to look for. Here are six symptoms to watch for. If you detect one or more, you should be evaluated as soon as possible by a qualified physician.
- Warm, red, irritated and/or itchy breasts. These are among the most common early warning signs of inflammatory breast cancer.
- Nipple discharge. With the exception of breast milk that may leak from breasts during or after pregnancy, any nipple discharge should be checked by a doctor. Clear or bloody discharge may indicate cancer.
- Flat or inverted nipple. If this is unusual for you, have it evaluated by a doctor.
- Scaliness. Healthy breast skin is smooth. If yours is scaly or inflamed, that's a red flag.
- Changes in skin texture. If you develop a rash, puckering or dimpling on the breast, that could be a sign of breast cancer. Skin changes related to breast cancer may resemble the rough skin of an orange peel.
- Change in breast size or shape. While it's not uncommon for someone to have one breast that's larger than the other, any new change in breast size or shape, including swelling or shrinkage, could indicate cancer.
Knowing what breast cancer red flags to watch for is important, but so is knowing about breast changes that may be completely normal. Throughout a women's menstrual cycle, periodic breast pain, tenderness and heaviness is common. If you experience these feelings in both breasts, and are menstruating or about to begin your cycle, these symptoms are most likely the result of normal, monthly hormonal changes in your body. For more information about what's normal and what's not, check out our blog about common breast cancer misconceptions.
When in Doubt, Get Checked Out
If you're experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, or if you're having pain at times other than the start of your menstrual cycle, it would be a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting a mammogram. There's no need to panic. Schedule an appointment with your gynecologist, who will typically examine you and then refer you for a mammogram. Mammograms effectively detect 84% of breast cancers; so when you're given a clean bill of health you can set your mind at ease. If your mammogram detects a suspicious mass, you may need to be evaluated further. If you do have breast cancer, you can expect a better outcome, because the earlier cancer treatment begins, the better patient outcomes usually are. If you live in Maryland, Washington, D.C. or the surrounding areas and want to be examined by a breast cancer specialist, contact us at Maryland Oncology.