Breast cancer doesn’t always produce symptoms in the early stages, although some people receive a diagnosis after noticing a lump. In one rare type, called inflammatory breast cancer, a rash might be an early symptom.

Routine screening often detects breast cancer, but some people find out after finding a lump in their breast.

However, there are many types of breast lump, many of which aren’t cancerous. A doctor will need to carry out tests to find out whether a lump is cancerous or not.

Here, find out about some symptoms that could indicate breast cancer.

For more on breast cancer and how to cope, see our dedicated resource center.

For many people, feeling a lump in the breast is one of the first symptoms of breast cancer.

However, breast cancer isn’t the only cause of lumps in the breast. In fact, most breast changes aren’t due to cancer.

Other common causes include fibrocystic breasts and breast cysts.

Here are some features that a fibrous lump, cyst, or breast cancer may have:

Breast cancerCystFibrous tissue (fibroadenoma)
Sizeany sizefrom too small to feel to 1–2 inches across; can vary with hormonal changesfrom too small to feel to several inches across
Texturedensesmoothrubbery or firm
Shapeirregularround or ovalround or oval, well-defined, like a marble
Movable?not usuallymoveable within the breast tissuemoves easily under the skin when touched
Pain? not usuallysometimes, especially before menstruationsometimes before menstruation

However, lumps can vary widely. If you have any new lump or any concerns about a lump, it’s best to see a doctor.

When should you worry about a breast lump?

All breasts are different. On one person, both breasts will likely be different from each other.

However, any breast swelling or other change in the size or shape of the breast is worth investigating.

Many people check their breasts regularly to see if there are any changes. Not all experts recommend this, as it can lead to anxiety, and it may put people off seeking regular screening.

However, it’s a good idea to get to know your breasts and to seek medical advice if you notice any changes.

How do you do a breast self-exam?

Inflammatory breast cancer

This is a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer. It blocks the lymph vessels in the breast, leading to a buildup of fluid.

This type of cancer doesn’t usually cause a lump but can lead to:

  • swelling, usually of one-third or more of the breast
  • redness on paler skin, which may show as a darker area on darker skin
  • an appearance of bruising
  • ridged, pitted, or “orange peel” skin
  • a rapid increase in breast size
  • a feeling of heaviness, burning, or tenderness
  • an inverted nipple
  • swollen lymph nodes under the arm, near the collarbone, or both
  • a breast lump, in some cases

Learn more about inflammatory breast cancer.

Some people notice a change in their breast skin. Some rare types of breast cancer can lead to skin changes, which may resemble an infection.

Changes to look out for include:

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

What can cause a rash on the breast?

Your nipple may also show symptoms of breast cancer.

See a doctor if you notice:

Paget disease of the breast

Paget disease of the breast is a rare type of breast cancer that involves the nipple and the circle of skin around it, called the areola. It often occurs with ductal carcinoma.

Symptoms include:

  • redness, scaliness, and crusting of the skin
  • a discharge of blood or yellow fluid
  • burning or itching in the nipple
  • a flattened or inverted nipple

Paget disease can also resemble eczema.

What problems can affect the nipples?

Breast tissue extends under the arms, and the first place breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes under the arms. This can cause a lump.

Inflammatory breast cancer can also involve swollen lymph nodes under the nearest arm, by the collarbone, or both.

Talk with a doctor if you notice any lumps or changes in the spaces around your breasts.

Find out more about underarm lumps.

Breast pain isn’t usually a symptom of breast cancer. Most cancerous breast lumps aren’t painful.

The exception is inflammatory breast cancer, which can involve pain, burning, and swelling of one breast, along with other symptoms.

Breast pain is most likely to stem from hormonal changes, an abscess, a cyst, or fibrocystic breasts.

Nevertheless, it’s best to see a doctor if breast pain:

  • doesn’t fluctuate across the menstrual cycle
  • persists over time
  • worsens
  • occurs with a fever, inflammation, and other symptoms that could indicate an infection
  • affects one breast and occurs with swelling and skin changes

When should you worry about breast pain?

Breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is called metastatic breast cancer, or stage 4 breast cancer. While it’s often not curable, it’s possible to manage breast cancer when it spreads.

Breast cancer may spread to the:

  • brain
  • bones
  • lungs
  • liver

Your symptoms will vary depending on the organs affected by the cancer.

The symptoms of bone metastases include:

  • bone pain
  • back pain
  • numbness
  • fatigue
  • unexpected bone fractures due to brittle bones
  • frequent urination

Symptoms of brain involvement include:

  • changes in vision
  • seizures
  • persistent, worsening headache
  • nausea
  • confusion or changes in behavior
  • gait changes
  • imbalance or falls
  • weakness on one side of the body

Liver metastases can cause:

  • jaundice, seen in a yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • itchy skin or a skin rash
  • abdominal pain and swelling
  • appetite loss
  • nausea and vomiting

People with lung metastases may have:

  • chest pain
  • chronic cough
  • difficulty breathing

If you notice any of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your breast cancer has spread.

Other possible causes include:

  • depression or anxiety
  • infections and other illnesses
  • chemotherapy and other cancer treatment

It’s best to speak with a doctor so they can order any appropriate tests.

Learn more about metastatic breast cancer

Do you need to know more about metastatic breast cancer? Explore our dedicated features and articles:

Other possible causes of breast changes include:

  • Hyperplasia and atypical hyperplasia: These don’t usually cause noticeable symptoms, but imaging tests may detect them. They’re more common after the age of 35 years. Atypical hyperplasia may increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • Mondor disease: Also known as thrombophlebitis, this condition results from inflammation of a vein under the skin of the breast or chest wall. The vein can look like a long, narrow cord under the skin. The area may be red and sore to start with but can become like a tough, painless band over time. The vein may pull in the skin of the breast.
  • Sclerosing lesions of the breast: Sclerosing breast lesions occur when an area of hardened tissue develops. This condition usually affects women around the age that perimenopause begins.
  • Lobular neoplasia: Also called lobular carcinoma, these are cell changes that aren’t cancerous but can increase the risk of breast cancer. There are no symptoms, but a biopsy or test for another condition may reveal them. According to Breast Cancer Now, these cell changes often during a person’s 40s to 50s.

Language matters

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.”

Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

Was this helpful?

Here, find some pictures of how breast cancer can look. However, it’s worth noting that symptoms usually only become visible as cancer progresses.

If you have certain risk factors, you’re more likely to develop breast cancer. However, people without these risk factors can also have it. If you notice a lump and don’t have any risk factors, it’s still best to seek medical advice.

Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • being older than 50 years
  • having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • having changes to specific genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2
  • having a history of radiation therapy
  • previously having had breast cancer
  • having dense breasts
  • having a history of a related noncancerous condition, such as atypical hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ
  • exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), used between 1940 and 1971 in the United States
  • being physically inactive
  • hormonal therapies, including some birth control pills
  • alcohol use
  • starting menstruation before 12 years of age or undergoing menopause after 55 years
  • having a first pregnancy after 30 years of age or never being pregnant

Why is screening important and who needs it?

What are the early signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

Often there are no early signs or symptoms, but many people receive a diagnosis after finding a painless, irregular lump in a breast or noticing changes around the nipple.

Inflammatory breast cancer doesn’t usually involve a lump, but there may be pain, swelling, and skin changes in one breast.

Following a doctor’s recommendations for screening is the best way to detect breast cancer early.

What are unusual signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

Pain, swelling, skin changes, and inflammation in one breast are among the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer, while Paget disease involves changes in the nipple and surrounding area, called the areola.

What about men?

Males can also have breast cancer, although it’s not as common. Learn more here:

Finding a lump doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer, as there are many reasons why breast lumps develop.

However, the absence of a lump doesn’t mean you don’t have breast cancer, as not all cancers produce a noticeable lump, particularly in the early stages.

The best approach to detecting breast cancer as early as possible is to check your breasts regularly, seek medical advice if you notice any changes, and follow a doctor’s recommendations about screening.