While the symptoms of breast cancer vary widely from case to case, early signs of the disease most often manifest in the physical appearance of the affected breast. While the most common symptom is the sudden appearance of a lump or mass in the breast, there are other, less obvious physical changes that can signal the presence of breast cancer. Therefore, it is very important for everyone, particularly people with any of the common risk factors, to understand the “normal” appearance, feel, and sensation of their breast tissue so they can quickly and accurately detect subtle changes that could signal the onset of breast cancer. The five most common physical changes to breast tissue affected by cancer are:
- The sudden appearance of a lump or mass: This is the most common early symptom of breast cancer. If you notice a lump, mass, or thickening of tissue in the breast or underarm area that was previously not present, it could be cancerous. These lumps can be uniform or irregular, soft or hard, and painless or painful, so it is critically important to treat any lump you find with urgency, regardless of how it presents physically.
- Changes to the skin of the breast: Any sudden changes to the look and feel of the skin on or around the breast could be an early symptom of breast cancer. If you experience redness, irritation, sudden scaliness or dimpling of the skin, or your skin becomes more or less sensitive to external stimuli, it is important to let your physician know immediately.
- Structural changes to the breast: Breast cancer can alter the physical structure of the breast, so it is very important to stay alert for these changes. Swelling, warmth, or redness; changes in shape or size; and surface indentations or pocketing in all or part of the breast can be early signs of the disease. The nipple is also subject to structural changes, such as inversion, swelling or pulling in one direction. If you observe any structural changes to the breast or nipple, you should consult your healthcare provider immediately.
- Nipple discharge: When a tumor develops in the milk ducts of the breast, it can cause sudden, unexplained discharge. Generally speaking, the most worrying type of discharge is spontaneous, meaning it happens without squeezing the breast; clear or bloodstained in color; and consistently emits from the same spots on the nipple, indicating that it is isolated to one or more of the milk ducts. However, discharge of any kind can be an early sign of breast cancer, so if you experience this early symptom it should be taken very seriously.
- Pain: The development of a breast tumor can be a very painful process to experience. Pain that is not related to the menstrual cycle, comes and goes in “jolts” and is isolated to one spot on the breast can be an early warning sign of breast cancer. Interestingly, lumps that are tender to the touch are generally benign, as breast cancer does not typically produce painful lumps.
There are a number of ways cancer can physically manifest in the breast. Some of these manifestations, like the sudden onset of pain and nipple discharge, are easy to recognize, while others can be quite subtle. Therefore, it is critically important that women, particularly women who find themselves at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, familiarize themselves with the appearance and feel of their breast tissue. Fully understanding how your breast looks and feels when healthy is the only way you will be able to notice some of the subtle changes discussed above, and the best way to develop this baseline is to conduct periodic self-checks of the breast tissue.