You might feel a firm, but not necessarily painful lump in your breast while showering or doing a regular breast self-exam. While a lump is the most common sign of breast cancer, other noncancerous conditions, like cysts, can also cause breast lumps.
If you do notice an unusual lump in your breast, report it to your doctor and have it checked out.
Tumors are growths that form when cells continue to divide without stopping. Some tumors are benign, meaning they don’t spread to other organs and tissues. Other tumors are cancerous. They can reach other parts of the body and form more tumors.
When doctors diagnose breast cancer, they look at how aggressive the tumor is and how likely it is to spread. This helps them find the right treatment.
Although tumors are the most common symptom of breast cancer, they’re not the only symptom.
Women with a rare form of the disease called inflammatory breast cancer can develop a red, pink, or purple rash across part of their breast. The skin of the breast might also appear puckered, like the skin of an orange.
If you have symptoms like these, have them checked out by a doctor right away. Inflammatory breast cancer can spread quickly.
The best way doctors have to spot breast cancer early is with a mammogram—an X-ray of the breast. A mammogram can find a tumor that’s too small to feel.
Depending on your age, your doctor may recommend that you get mammograms on a regular basis to screen for breast cancer. You might also have a mammogram if your doctor wants to further investigate after finding something during a breast exam or other screening test.
An ultrasound uses sound waves, which bounce off the breast to create a picture of the tissue inside. Unlike mammograms, an ultrasound is not used to screen for breast cancer. Sometimes it can help spot tumors in dense breasts that don’t show up clearly on a mammogram. An ultrasound can also help the doctor find out whether a growth discovered during a mammogram or breast exam is cancerous.
After breast cancer is diagnosed, doctors do tests to find out whether cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. Then they assign a stage, which helps them treat the cancer.
In stages 0 and 1, the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the breast. Stage 2 cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes. Stage 3 tumors have spread to the lymph nodes, and possibly the chest wall. Stage 4 means cancer has reached other, remote parts of the body.
Some women with breast cancer get treated with radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Although this treatment is designed to spare healthy cells, it can make the skin of the breast turn red, like a sunburn. The skin may feel sore or itchy. It can also peel or blister. The burn should go away within six weeks after treatment. Some changes in skin color or texture from the radiation might stick around longer, or may be permanent.
During surgery, the doctor may remove just the breast lump, part of the breast, or the whole breast. After surgery, you’ll stay in the hospital for a day or two. You may have to wear drains for a week or two to remove blood and fluid.
It’s normal to feel sore after the surgery. Your medical team will show you how to care for the surgical area, and how to look out for signs of infection.
Losing a breast can be one of the hardest parts of going through breast cancer surgery. Breast reconstruction surgery can restore your breasts to their former size and shape.
Although a reconstructed breast won’t look or feel exactly like a real breast, it will be close enough to help you feel more comfortable in clothes or a bathing suit. The surgery may be done right after you have your mastectomy, or later if you also need to have radiation.