What are the symptoms of breast cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass in the breast. People should become familiar with the typical look and feel of their breasts so that they can detect any changes early on.
Breast cancer can develop in males and females, but due to differences in breast tissue, the disease is much less common in males.
Below, we outline some early indications of breast cancer in females and males. We also describe the various types and treatment options. Finally, we look into some benign conditions that people may mistake for breast cancer.
A new mass or lump in breast tissue is the most common sign of breast cancer.
The ACS report that these lumps are usually hard, irregular in shape, and painless. However, some breast cancer tumors can be soft, round, and tender to the touch.
The following breast changes can be symptoms of breast cancer:
- full or partial swelling
- thickening of part of a breast
- a change in the size or shape of a breast
- irritation of the skin
- dimpled skin
- red, flaky skin on the breast or nipple
- breast or nipple pain
- pulling in of the nipple
- nipple discharge
- swollen lymph nodes
Many of these changes can also result from other health issues.
However, if a person notices any changes in their breast tissue, they should see a doctor as soon as possible. It is important to rule out cancer as a possible cause.
Symptoms for specific types of cancer
Each form of breast cancer develops in a different part of the breast and can affect different types of tissue.
Since many breast cancers cause no symptoms, people should attend regular screenings. This can help identify the disease in its early stages.
Below, we outline the types of breast cancer and their symptoms.
Common types of breast cancer
Lobular carcinoma in situ
Lobular carcinoma in situ refers to an area of abnormal cells confined to the milk-producing glands of the breast in females.
Because these cells do not spread to surrounding tissues, experts do not consider lobular carcinoma in situ to be a "true" cancer. However, it can increase the chances of developing other types of breast cancer.
Invasive lobular carcinoma
This develops in the breast's lobules — glands that can produce milk — and invades nearby breast tissue.
In the early stages, invasive lobular carcinoma may not cause symptoms. Or, a person may experience:
- thickening or hardening of breast tissue, rather than a distinct lump
- an area of fullness or swelling in the breast
- a change in the texture of the breast's skin
- the nipple turning inward
Ductal carcinoma in situ
Ductal carcinoma in situ refers to an area of abnormal cells that are confined to one of the breast's milk ducts.
When a person receives this diagnosis, it means that the cells have not invaded surrounding breast tissue. However, having ductal carcinoma in situ can increase the risk of developing an invasive breast cancer later on.
This condition generally does not cause symptoms. Rarely, a person may notice a lump in the breast or some discharge from the nipple.
Invasive ductal carcinoma
This is the most common type of breast cancer, accounting for around 80% of cases.
Invasive ductal carcinoma begins in the breast's milk ducts and invades surrounding breast tissue. Over time, the cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and other tissues.
In its early stages, invasive ductal carcinoma may not cause symptoms. For some people, the first indication is a new lump or mass within the breast.
People with this type of cancer may also experience:
- swelling of all or part of the breast
- pain in the breast or nipple
- irritation or dimpling of the breast's skin
- redness, scaling, or thickening of the nipple or skin
- nipple discharge
- the nipple turning inward
- a lump in the underarm area
Less common breast cancers
Some less common types of breast cancer include:
- Triple-negative breast cancer: The name refers to cancer cells that do not contain estrogen or progesterone receptors and produce little HER2 protein. As a result, the cancer does not respond to hormone therapy. Both lobular and ductal carcinomas can be triple-negative.
- Inflammatory breast cancer: This develops when cancer cells block lymph vessels within the skin of the breast, causing the breast to swell.
- Phyllodes tumors: These develop within the connective tissues of the breast. While most are benign, some are cancerous.
- Paget's disease: This type of cancer starts in the breast ducts and spreads to the nipple.
- Angiosarcoma of the breast: This type of cancer starts in blood or lymph vessels and can affect the breast tissue.
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Breast cancer symptoms in males
Males have small amounts of breast tissue, which does not develop during puberty. Rarely, cancer forms in this tissue.
The ACS estimate that in 2020, doctors in the United States will diagnose about 2,620 cases of breast cancer in men. Approximately 520 men will die from the disease in the same year.
Males with breast cancer may experience:
- a lump or swelling that is often painless
- nipple retraction
- discharge from a nipple
- dimpling or puckering of the skin of the breast
- redness or scaling of the nipple or skin of the breast
When to see a doctor
See a doctor about any changes in the breast or nipple. It is important to seek medical attention for:
- changes in the shape, feel, or size of the breasts
- a lump in the breast or underarm area
- persistent pain in the breast
Typically, the diagnostic procedure begins with an examination of the breast. The doctor will feel for lumps within the tissue and may also check the lymph nodes.
The doctor will also ask about the person's medical history and whether there is a family history of breast cancer.
The doctor may then order additional tests, including:
- a mammogram
- a breast ultrasound
- a breast MRI
- a breast biopsy, in which they remove a small piece of tissue and send it to a lab for a closer examination
If breast cancer is present, the doctor will describe the treatment options and next steps.
Breast cancer treatment depends on several factors, including:
- the type of cancer
- the stage of the cancer at the time of detection
- the person's age
- the person's overall health
Some of the most common breast cancer treatments include:
- hormone therapy, which uses hormones to target cancer cells that have hormone receptors
- radiation therapy, which uses targeted high-dose radiation to destroy cancer cells
- chemotherapy, which uses specific drugs to kill cancer cells
- lumpectomy, which involves removing the tumor while leaving the breast intact
- mastectomy, which involves removing the tumor and part or all of the breast's tissue
The doctor will describe the various options at each stage of treatment and work to determine the best course of action.
Benign breast conditions
Several benign breast conditions can cause symptoms that resemble those of cancer. Some of these issues require treatment, while others go away on their own.
Though these conditions are benign, they can cause:
- discomfort or pain
- lumps to form
Some common benign breast conditions include:
- cysts: fluid-filled sacs that can form in many parts of the body
- mastitis: potentially painful swelling of the breast
- hyperplasia: an overgrowth of cells, particularly in the milk ducts or lobules
- sclerosing adenosis: small lumps that form in lobules
- intraductal papillomas: small lumps that form in milk ducts
- a fibroadenoma: a moveable lump that develops when an overgrowth of fibrous or glandular tissue forms around a lobule
- a radial scar: a core of connective tissue that can resemble breast cancer on a mammogram
- a fat necrosis: a lump that is typically caused by surgery, radiation, or injury to the breast
- phyllodes tumors: fast-growing but typically painless tumors that start in the connective tissue of the breast — some can be cancerous
If a person is not sure what is causing any breast-related symptom, they should talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
As with most cancers, early breast cancer detection and treatment leads to a better outcome.
The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump, but any changes to the shape or feel of a breast can indicate a problem.
Females should attend regular breast examinations and let a doctor know about any breast-related symptoms or changes.
Survival rates can help people understand the likelihood of treatment being successful. A 5-year survival rate indicates the percentage of people who are living 5 years after their diagnosis.
According to the ACS, when a doctor diagnoses breast cancer before it has spread beyond the breast, the 5-year survival rate is 99%.
When breast cancer has spread beyond the breast to the lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 86%. The same survival rate for cancer that has spread to other organs is 27%.
However, many factors specific to each individual affect these estimates. A doctor can provide more detailed information about a person's outlook.