Breast cancer impacts hundreds of thousands of people every year in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annually, “about 264,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,400 in men.”
The thought of finding a lump in your breast is terrifying, but it’s important to be aware of your breast health so you can alert your doctor to any changes. Beyond lumps, though, there are other changes that could be signs of breast cancer.
“Thankfully, a lot of women have breast cancers that are caught early on imaging,” said Dr. Laura Dominici, an associate surgeon at Dana-Farber/Brigham Cancer Center, underscoring the importance of regular mammograms and ultrasounds. “But there still are women who will notice a symptom that brings attention to something going on in the breast.”
While lumps are the first thing many people think of when they think of breast cancer, breast cancer can actually present as many other symptoms, too. Here are the lesser-known signs of breast cancer that span beyond a lump in the breast.
A lump in the armpit.
Dr. Jasmeet Singh, a breast medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Westchester, said that an unexpected sign of breast cancer is the presence of a lump in the armpit. This could be due to the enlargement of lymph nodes near the breast.
According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a healthy lymph node is lima bean-shaped and “should also be somewhat firm, but still have some give to it.” Enlarged, potentially cancerous lymph nodes become round like a marble and are very hard.
Nipple or skin changes.
When it comes to signs of breast cancer, any changes to the breast or nipple skin are concerning. Dominici said you should keep an eye out for dimpling of the skin or changes to your nipple, including nipple inversion. Singh added that cracked and inflamed nipples could be warning signs, too.
Random discharge from the nipple can be an alarming thing, but experts are most concerned when that discharge is bloody, Dominici said ― not clear, white or green.
“Many women are able to get discharge from the nipple if they squeeze the nipple, and that’s actually not a concerning sign,” she noted. It’s concerning when the discharge is spontaneous.
She added that some people could notice this spontaneous discharge as a stain on their bra or shirt after a normal day of errands or at work.
Something that appears to be a breast infection.
For some people, breast cancer can look like an infection — redness, swelling — but this may actually also be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, Singh said.
Breast infections do exist. However, if you notice a “persistent redness in the breast which is not getting better with antibiotics,” you should contact your doctor immediately, Singh explained.
A change in breast size.
If the size of your boob changes drastically, it could be a sign of breast cancer, Dominici said. This can be evident when comparing one of your boobs to the other or noticing that your bra doesn’t fit one of your breasts anymore.
In rare cases, the breast can actually shrink, Dominici noted. In other cases, the breast can swell, which as mentioned above, can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer.
Other physical changes can also be signs.
“Patients present with weight loss, shortness of breath, pain in the abdomen” and more when the breast cancer is in late stages, Singh noted.
In this case, it can be hard to pin these symptoms down as signs of breast cancer. Singh added that it’s always important to alert your health care team to any changes in your general health.
If you notice any warning signs, contact your doctor.
Beyond physical signs, people who have a parent or sibling with breast cancer are at higher risk of developing the disease, Singh said. But “only 5 to 10% of breast cancers are inherited,” she noted, so it’s important to keep that in mind if your brain starts to worry.
That being said, it’s still important to alert your doctor to any family history so imaging scans can begin at a younger age, if necessary.
Breast cancer is a serious diagnosis, but there are many treatments available once it’s diagnosed by a doctor. If you suspect you may be experiencing any of these signs, contact your doctor who can set you up with testing.
That said, it’s important to remember not to panic. “A lot of these things can not be breast cancer and can be benign things,” Dominici said.
You should look at any of these issues as a sign to call your doctor, but remember there are explanations that aren’t breast cancer, too. Checking in regularly with your physicians and monitoring your health is the best thing you can do for yourself — no matter what.