Warning Signs of Breast Cancer

Written by Brian Krans and Jacquelyn Cafasso | Published on February 26, 2015
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on February 26, 2015

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 doctor. While early stage breast cancer shows no symptoms, timely detection can turn breast cancer into a survivor's tale.

Continue reading to learn about the signs, symptoms, and different types of breast cancer.

Causes of Pain and 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 or some infertility treatments
  • a bra that doesn't fit
  • breast cysts
  • large breasts, which may be accompanied with neck, shoulder, or back pain
  • stress

Breast Lumps

A lump in the breast isn't always cancerous. From hormonal changes in teens to damaged fat tissue, more than 90 percent of all breast lumps are noncancerous (benign) in women in their early 20s to early 50s, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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 these symptoms, you should see your doctor.

Breast Exams

When you visit your doctor with concerns about breast pain, tenderness or a lump, there are common tests they might perform:

  • mammogram: an X-ray of the breast to help distinguish between a benign and malignant mass
  • ultrasound: use of ultrasonic sound waves to produce an image of the tissue
  • MRI: used in conjunction with other tests, another noninvasive imaging test used to examine breast tissue
  • biopsy: removal of a small amount of breast tissue for testing

You Asked, We Answered

  • The question is: Are mammograms always accurate because my mother was having them done every year, but she found the lump herself. - Cindy B.
  • Mammogram is not 100 percent accurate in detecting breast cancer, especially in women with dense breast tissue. Additionally some breast tumors are radiographically occult meaning that they can't be seen on mammogram even when they can be clearly felt. Other times cancers appear and grow rapidly, so it is possible to have a truly negative mammogram and then to feel a lump before the next yearly mammogram is due. If you feel a lump you should see your doctor right away regardless of your mammogram results.

    - Monica Bien, MPA, PA-C

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 1-4)

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 may also speed up the growth of some types of breast cancers that have hormone receptors.

  • estrogen receptor positive: this cancer responds to estrogen
  • progesterone receptor positive: this cancer responds to progesterone
  • hormone receptor negative: has 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:

  • lumpectomy: removal of the tumor while leaving the breast intact
  • mastectomy: surgical removal of all breast tissue including the tumor and connecting tissue
  • 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 and 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 2 breast cancer is more than 90 percent. The stage 3 breast cancer five-year survival rate is more than 70 percent.

Staying Ahead of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, according to the World Health Organization. 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.

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