Warning Signs of Breast Cancer
Self examination and early detection are the first steps in treating and beating breast cancer. Learn all the possible causes of breast pain, lumps, and tenderness.
Breast Pain or Lump: Is it Cancer?
A sharp pain in your breast, possibly with some tenderness, can be scary. It may have you wondering if it could be something serious.
A breast lump is often the thing women — and even men — notice that spurs a visit to their doctors. While early stage breast cancer shows no symptoms, timely detection can turn breast cancer into a survivor's tale.
This slideshow covers signs, symptoms, and types of breast cancer. Click through to learn important information you should know.
Causes of Pain & Tenderness
We often associate pain with something wrong, so when women feel tenderness or pain in their breast they often assume the worst — breast cancer. However, breast pain is rarely the first noticeable symptom of breast cancer. Several other factors can cause the pain.
Breast pain — clinically called mastalgia — can also be caused by the following:
- fluctuation of hormones caused by menstruation
- a side effect of some birth control pills
- a bra that doesn't fit
A lump in the breast isn't always cancerous. From hormonal changes in teens to damaged fat tissue, more than 80 percent of all breast lumps are noncancerous for women under the age of 40.
Common causes of benign breast lumps include:
- breast infection
- fibrocystic breast disease
- fibroadenoma (noncancerous tumor)
- fat necrosis (damaged tissue)
With fat necrosis, the mass cannot be distinguished from a cancerous lump without a biopsy. Tests for breast cancer are explained later.
Signs of Breast Cancer
While often caused by less severe conditions, a breast lump, pain, and tenderness are often the things most associated with breast cancer. Other symptoms of breast cancer include:
- nipple discharge or retraction of the nipple
- enlargement of one breast
- dimpling of the breast surface
- an "orange peel" texture to the skin
- vaginal pain
- unintentional weight loss
- enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit
- visible veins on the breast
If you experience any of those symptoms, you should see your doctor. Breast exams are covered on the next page.
When you visit your doctor with concerns about breast pain, tenderness or a lump, there are common tests he or she will perform:
- Mammogram: an x-ray of the breast to help tell between a benign and malignant mass
- Biopsy: removal of a small amount of breast tissue for testing
- Ultrasound: use of ultrasonic sound waves to produce an image of the tissue
- MRI: Normally used in conjunction with other tests, magnetic resonance imaging is another noninvasive way to examine breast tissue
Types of Breast Cancer
Two categories reflect the nature of the cancer:
- Noninvasive (in situ): cancer has not spread from the original tissue (Stage 0)
- Invasive (infiltrating): cancer cells have spread to surrounding tissues (Stages I-IV)
The tissue affected determines the type of cancer:
- Ductal carcinoma: cancer forms in the lining of the milk ducts (most common)
- Lobular carcinoma: cancer in the lobules of the breast where milk is produced
- Sarcoma: cancer in the breast's connective tissue (rare)
Genes and Hormones Affect Cancer Growth
Geneticists are starting to learn how genes affect the growth of cancer and have even identified one:
- HER-2: HER-2 in cancer cells fuels their growth. Medications can help shut the HER-2 gene down.
Like genes, hormones can also speed up the growth of some types of breast cancers that have hormone receptors.
- Estrogen receptor positive: this cancer uses estrogen to grow
- Progesterone receptor positive: this cancer is fueled by progesterone
- Hormone receptor negative: doesn't use hormones as fuel (no hormone receptors)
Depending on the type and stage of cancer, treatments can vary. However, there are some common practices doctors and specialists use to combat breast cancer:
- Mastectomy: surgical removal of part or the whole breast to remove a tumor and connecting tissue
- Lumpectomy: removes the tumor while leaving the breast intact
- Chemotherapy: the most common cancer treatment, chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to interfere with cells' ability to reproduce
- Radiation: another standard in the fight against cancer, radiation uses X-rays to directly treat cancer
- Hormone & Targeted Therapy: used when either genes or hormones play a part in the cancer's growth
As with any cancer, early detection and treatment is a major factor in determining the outcome. Breast cancer is easily treated and usually curable when detected in the earliest of stages.
The American Cancer Society says the five-year survival rate for Stage 0 to Stage II breast cancer is more than 80 percent. Stage III breast cancer five-year survival rate is still more than 50 percent.
Staying Ahead of Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Whether you're concerned about breast pain or tenderness, it's important to stay informed on risk factors and warning signs of breast cancer.
The best way to fight breast cancer is early detection, whether that be self-examinations or regular mammograms. If you're worried that your breast pain or tenderness could be something serious, make an appointment with your doctor today.