As women, we know to be on the watch for any changes or abnormalities in our breasts. We are told to do self-exams often and get mammograms regularly. By taking precautions like these, we can hopefully detect lumps that may be cancerous and get treated early.
Thanks to advancements in mammograms and early detection, we’ve come a long way in detecting breast cancer, treating breast cancer, and surviving breast cancer.
The tricky part is our bodies are always changing, and what was “normal” for us five years ago may not be normal now. Breasts can even change from month to month! Not to mention, many women note differences from breast to breast. All of this is perfectly normal, but it can make us question new developments.
The appearance of our breasts, even the way they feel, can change depending on whether you’re getting your period or approaching menopause, if you are pregnant or nursing, gaining or losing weight, or taking certain medications.
Let’s be real: a “normal” breast looks different for every woman, so it’s up to every individual woman to be vigilant at each age and stage of her breast health.
Yes, a new lump or mass discovered in the breast is the most common symptom of breast cancer. BUT lumps do not always indicate cancer. Most lumps are caused by other noncancerous medical conditions, including fibrocystic breasts and cysts.
On the flip side, neither self-performed breast exams nor mammograms are perfect. Some women naturally have dense breast tissue that can mimic or even hide premalignant (which may become cancer) or malignant tumors. Some types of breast cancer do not present with lumps at all.
It’s worth noting that lumps and thickened skin or tissue aren’t the only indicators of breast cancer. Keep an eye out for the below symptoms that can also foretell a possible breast cancer diagnosis.
9 Less Common Symptoms of Breast Cancer
1. A change in breast shape or size.
This is notable, especially if it happens within a short period of time. It’s not uncommon to have one breast that’s slightly larger than the other. That said, any new change in breast size or shape, including swelling or shrinkage, could be indicative of cancer.
2. Swelling in all or part of the breast (even if no lump is felt).
Symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include swelling (edema) and redness (erythema) that affect a third or more of the breast, and skin may appear pink, reddish-purple, or bruised. Most often, a tumor cannot be felt with this type of cancer.
3. Breast pain after menopause.
Some women describe this as a shooting pain. While breast pain can have many other causes, it should be looked into if it is experienced alongside other unexplained or severe symptoms.
4. Skin dimpling.
Doctors describe skin dimpling as skin that is similar in texture to an orange’s outer peel.
This refers to a pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area. Some people are born with inverted nipples, but if this condition is new or present in only one breast, it should be discussed with your doctor.
6. Nipple or breast skin that is dry, red, flaking, or thickened.
Perhaps you notice a rash or scaliness. Healthy breast skin is generally smooth; breast cancer can sometimes cause a rash that looks similar to mastitis, an infection that sometimes affects women who are breastfeeding. If you are not breastfeeding and notice a rash, that’s something to have checked out.
7. Nipple discharge.
Nipple discharge (other than milk) can indicate breast cancer. This discharge sometimes appears clear or bloody.
8. Swollen lymph nodes under the arms or collarbone.
This is often a sign that breast cancer is spreading even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.
9. Back pain or musculoskeletal pain.
Acute lower back pain has been identified as a cause of metastatic breast cancer in patients. Though back pain can have many other causes, it is sometimes a red flag for breast cancer, as breast cancer can cause secondary malignant growths to develop on the spine.
When you get to know your breasts, from day to day and month to month, you can better identify when something is not quite right. (How easy is it to go about our busy lives without checking in with ourselves?) In addition to that, regular breast cancer screenings and mammograms are still very important.
If you do find something has changed with your breasts, and you’re wondering, “Could it be cancer?” don’t lose sleep, but do take action. Stay calm and remember that many of the symptoms above can also be caused by benign or non-cancerous breast conditions like cysts. The American Cancer Society states that most breast changes are benign.
Keep calm, but stay aware. While a breast cancer prognosis (or even the thought of one) is scary, there are ways we can proactively monitor our health to help catch breast cancer early. With early breast cancer detection, you have a greater chance of fighting and defeating the disease.
Let’s bring breast health awareness out of the dark and into our everyday conversations. Remind your friends, sisters, and daughters to get their mammograms and health screenings regularly.
We’re all in this together.