Breast Cancer Symptom Basics

Written by Jaime Herndon | Published on September 2, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on September 2, 2014

Breast Cancer Symptom Basics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in American women. It occurs when cancer cells grow from breast tissue. Breast tissue includes the lobules and ducts of the breast, along with fatty and connective tissue.

Sometimes there are no symptoms of breast cancer, especially in its early stages. The earlier breast cancer is found, the easier it can be to treat. This is why early detection is so important. Here are some symptoms to be aware of that might indicate breast cancer. Just because you have one or more symptoms does not mean you have the disease. If any symptoms are present and have not been previously evaluated, call your doctor for an appointment.

Lump In the Breast

For many women, feeling a lump in the breast is one of the first symptoms of breast cancer. It does not have to be a painful lump, although some are. It’s a good idea to do breast self-exams every month to get to know your breast tissue. This way you’ll notice if a new or suspicious lump has formed.

Changes In the Skin of the Breast

Some women notice a change in their breast skin. There are several rare subtypes of breast cancer that present with skin changes, and these skin symptoms may be mistaken for an infection.  Changes to look out for include:

  • irritation
  • redness
  • any thickening of the skin
  • dimpling of the tissue
  • a texture similar to that of an orange

Changes In the Nipple

Your nipple may also display symptoms of breast cancer.  See your doctor if you notice a sudden inversion of the nipples, pain, or any abnormal discharge

Underarm Lump

Breast tissue extends under the arms, and cancer can spread through the lymph nodes under the arms. Talk with your doctor if you notice any lumps or abnormal areas in the space surrounding your breasts.

Metastatic Breast Cancer

Breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is called metastatic breast cancer, or stage 4 breast cancer. While not often curable, it’s possible to manage breast cancer when it spreads. The National Breast Cancer Foundation explains that the organs most likely to be affected by metastatic breast cancer include the brain, bones, lungs, and liver. Your symptoms will vary depending on the organs affected by the cancer.

Bone metastases symptoms include bone pain and brittle bones. Signs of possible brain involvement include changes in vision, seizures, a consistent headache, and nausea. Symptoms of liver metastases include:

  • jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • skin rash or itch
  • abnormal liver enzymes
  • loss of appetite or nausea

Those with lung metastases may experience chest pain, chronic cough, or trouble breathing.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it does not mean your breast cancer has necessarily spread. Depression or anxiety can cause some of these symptoms, as can infections or other ailments. It’s best to call your doctor for an appointment so the appropriate tests can be done.


If you have any of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you definitely have breast cancer. Infections or cysts, for example, can also cause symptoms like these. Seeing a doctor is appropriate if any of these symptoms newly appear or have not been previously evaluated. 

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