Breast cancer is the uncontrollable growth of malignant cells in the breasts. It’s the most common cancer in women, although it can also develop in men. The exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, but some women have a higher risk than others. This includes women with a personal or family history of breast cancer and women with certain gene mutations. You have an increased risk of breast cancer if you began your menstrual cycle before the age of 12, started menopause at an older age, or have never been pregnant.
Outcomes are best when breast cancer is diagnosed and treated early. It's important to examine your breasts regularly and schedule regular mammograms starting at age 45. Women who are at a higher risk should begin mammograms at age 40. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening schedule would be best for you.
Since cancer cells can metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of breast cancer early on. The sooner you receive a diagnosis and start treatment, the better your outlook.
Breast lump. Photo: iStockphoto
Nipple discharge. Photo: I. N. Umanah, A. S. Okpongette, 2009
Changes in size and shape of the breast. Photo: Dr. Sandeep Moolchandani
Inverted nipple. Photo: Dermnet New Zealand
Peeling, scaling, or flaking skin around the nipple. Photo: Dermnet New Zealand
Skin rash on the breast. Photo: Richard P. Usatine, MD, and “The Color Atlas of Family Medicine”
Pitting of the skin on the breast. Photo: Earthwide Surgical Foundation
The earliest symptoms of breast cancer are easier to feel than see. Performing a monthly self-exam of your breasts will help you get familiar with their normal look and feel. No evidence exists that this will help you detect cancer earlier, but it will help make it easier for you to notice any changes in your breast tissue.
Get into a routine of examining your breasts at least once per month. The best time to examine your breasts is a few days after the start of your menstrual cycle. If you’ve already begun menopause, choose a specific date to check your breasts every month.
With one hand positioned on your hip, use your other hand to run your fingers over both sides of your breasts, and don’t forget to check underneath your armpits. If you feel a lump or thickness, it’s important to realize that some women have thicker breasts tissue than others and that if you have thicker breasts, you may notice lumpiness. A benign tumor or cyst can also cause lumpiness. Nonetheless, bring any unusual findings to your doctor’s attention.
A milky discharge from the nipples is common when you're breast-feeding, but you shouldn’t ignore this symptom if you aren’t breast-feeding. Unusual discharge from your nipples can be a symptom of breast cancer. This includes a clear discharge and bloody discharge. See a doctor for further examination to determine whether breast cancer is causing the discharge.
It's not uncommon for breasts to swell, and you may notice a change in size around the time of your menstrual cycle. Swelling can also cause breast tenderness, and it may be slightly uncomfortable to wear a bra or lie down on your stomach. This is perfectly normal and rarely indicative of breast cancer.
But while your breast may undergo certain changes at different times of the month, you shouldn’t overlook some changes. If you notice your breast swelling at times other than your menstrual cycle, or if only one breast is swollen, talk to your doctor. In cases of normal swelling, both breasts remain symmetrical.
Your nipple may change in appearance. This is also normal. But talk to your doctor if you notice a newly inverted nipple. This is easy to identify. Instead of pointing outward, the nipple is pulled into the breast. An inverted nipple in itself doesn't suggest breast cancer. Some women normally have a flat nipple that looks inverted, and other women develop an inverted nipple over time. Still, your doctor should investigate and rule out cancer.
Don't immediately be alarmed if you notice peeling, scaling, or flaking on your breasts or the skin around your nipples. This is a symptom of breast cancer, but it can also be a symptom of atopic dermatitis, eczema, or another skin condition. After an exam, your doctor may run tests to rule out Paget’s disease, which is a type of breast cancer affecting the nipples. It can also cause these symptoms.
You may not associate breast cancer with redness or a skin rash, but in the case of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a rash is an early symptom. This is an aggressive form of breast cancer that affects the skin and lymph vessels of the breast. Unlike other types of breast cancer, IBC doesn’t usually cause lumps. However, your breasts may become swollen, warm, and appear red. The rash may resemble clusters of insect bites, and it’s not unusual to have itchiness.
A rash isn't the only visual symptom of inflammatory breast cancer. In addition, this type of cancer also changes the appearance of your breasts. You may notice dimpling or pitting, and the skin on your breast may begin to look like an orange peel due to underlying inflammation.
It‘s important that every woman learns how to identify the visible symptoms of breast cancer. Cancer can be aggressive and life-threatening, but with early diagnosis and treatment the survival rate is high.
The five-year survival rate for breast cancer if diagnosed with stage 1 to stage 3 is between 100 percent and 72 percent. But once the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate drops to 22 percent. You can improve your chances of early detection and treatment by:
- developing a routine of conducting self-breast examinations
- seeing your doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts
- getting regular mammograms
Mammogram recommendations vary depending on age and risk so make sure you talk to your doctor about when you should start and how frequently you should have a mammogram.