Breast cancer: Signs and symptoms you need to know
Breast cancer is cancer where the cells in the breasts grow out of control. After skin cancer, breast cancer is one of the leading forms of cancer diagnosed in women. Although breast cancer can occur in men, it is far more common in women.
The breast consists of three main parts: the lobules which are the milk producing glands, the ducts which transport milk to the nipples and the connective tissue (which consists of fibrous and fatty tissue) surrounds and holds everything together. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts or lobules and can spread outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels. When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is said to have metastasized.
The most recognized symptom of breast cancer is a lump or mass in the breast tissue. In addition to finding a lump, every woman should also be aware of other changes to the breast or nipple. The symptoms of breast cancer may vary depending on the type that one contracts.
Some common, early warning signs of breast cancer include:
- Skin changes, such as swelling, redness, or other visible differences in one or both breasts
- An increase in size or change in shape of the breast(s)
- Changes in the appearance of one or both nipples
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk
- General pain in/on any part of the breast
- Lumps or nodes felt on or inside of the breast
Invasive breast cancer
Breast cancers that have spread into surrounding breast tissue are known as invasive breast cancer. The two most common types are invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma.
The general symptoms of invasive cancer include:
- A lump or mass in the breast
- Swelling of all or part of the breast, even if no lump is felt
- Skin irritation or dimpling
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- The nipple or breast skin appears red, scaly, or thickened
- Nipple discharge
- A lump or swelling in the underarm lymph nodes
Invasive ductal carcinoma – Is cancer that develops when cancer cells grow outside the ducts into other parts of the breast tissue. This type of cancer does not cause any symptoms. Rarely, a woman may feel a lump in the breast or have nipple discharge. However, most cases are detected with a mammogram.
Invasive lobular carcinoma – Is when cancer cells spread from the lobules to the breast tissues that are close by. This type of cancer does not cause symptoms and cannot be seen with a mammogram. This condition is usually found when a doctor is doing a breast biopsy for another reason, such as to investigate an unrelated breast lump. If a person has LCIS, the breast cells will appear abnormal under a microscope.
Inflammatory breast cancer
Unlike other breast cancers, inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) rarely causes breast lumps. Therefore, a breast self-exam, clinical breast exam, or even a mammogram may not detect it. Ultrasounds may also miss inflammatory breast cancer. However, the changes to the surface of the breast caused by inflammatory breast cancer can be seen with the naked eye. Symptoms include:
- Red, swollen, itchy breast that is tender to the touch
- The surface of the breast may take on a ridged or pitted appearance, similar to an orange peel (often called peau d’orange)
- Heaviness, burning, or aching in one breast
- One breast is visibly larger than the other
- Inverted nipple (facing inward)
- No mass is felt with a breast self-exam
- Swollen lymph nodes under the arm and/or above the collarbone
- Symptoms unresolved after a course of antibiotics
Metastatic breast cancer
Metastatic breast cancer symptoms depend on the part of the body to which the cancer has spread and its stage. Sometimes, metastatic disease may not cause any symptoms.
- If the breast or chest wall is affected, symptoms may include pain, nipple discharge, or a lump or thickening in the breast or underarm.
- If the bones are affected, symptoms may include pain, fractures, constipation or decreased alertness due to high calcium levels.
- If tumors form in the lungs, symptoms may include shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, coughing, chest wall pain or extreme fatigue.
- If the liver is affected, symptoms may include nausea, extreme fatigue, increased abdominal girth, swelling of the feet and hands due to fluid collection and yellowing or itchy skin.
- If breast cancer spreads to the brain or spinal cord and forms tumors, symptoms may include pain, confusion, memory loss, headache, blurred or double vision, difficulty with speech, difficulty with movement or seizures.
Male breast cancer
Male breast cancer symptoms can be similar to those experienced by women and may include:
- Lumps in the breast, usually painless
- Thickening of the breast
- Changes to the nipple or breast skin, such as dimpling, puckering or redness
- Discharge of fluid from the nipples
Early detection is key in the treatment of breast cancer. Women should conduct a self-breast examination at least once a month or have a mammogram done to detect any growing lumps.