Depending on the type of breast cancer, you may notice lumps or changes in the size and color of your breast. Your nipple may also change in appearance.

Breast cancer results from mutations in the genes of the breast cells. It causes them to divide and multiply uncontrollably.

The exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, but some people have a higher risk than others. This includes people with a personal or family history of breast cancer and certain gene mutations.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in females. It can also develop in males.

Diagnosing and treating breast cancer early offers the best outlook. That’s why experts recommend examining your breasts regularly and scheduling regular mammograms. A doctor can determine which breast cancer screening schedule is best for you.

Since cancer cells can metastasize or spread to other parts of the body, recognizing the symptoms of breast cancer early may result in earlier treatment and a better outlook.

Read more: Lumpectomy vs. mastectomy »

The earliest symptoms of breast cancer are easier to feel than see. Doing a monthly self-exam of your breasts can help you become familiar with their typical look and feel.

While there’s no evidence that self-exams help you detect cancer before symptoms appear, they may make it easier for you to notice any changes in your breast tissue, such as lumps.

Get into a routine of examining your breasts at least once per month. A good time is a few days after the start of your menstrual cycle. If you don’t have periods, like if menopause has started, choose a specific date to check your breasts every month.

How to do a breast self-exam

With one hand positioned on your hip, use your other hand to run your fingers over both sides of your breasts to check for lumps or thickness. Don’t forget to check underneath your armpits too.

Some people have thicker breasts than others. If you have thicker breasts, you may notice lumpiness. A benign tumor or cyst can also cause lumpiness.

Even though it might not be cause for alarm, talk with a doctor promptly about anything you notice that seems unusual.

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A breast lump may be easier to feel than see, but there are some characteristic ways breast cancer may look, such as:

  • dimpled, orange-peel-looking skin
  • peeling or flakey skin
  • inverted (turned in) nipples
  • a rash

These appearances don’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer since most breast lumps are not cancerous. But if see any of these skin changes, talk with your healthcare professional.

If you’re breastfeeding, you may experience a milky discharge from the nipples. But discharge when you’re not breastfeeding can potentially be an indicator of breast cancer. Discharge may appear:

  • whitish
  • clear
  • bloody

It may affect only one nipple and come from one duct.

If you’re noticing discharge and not breastfeeding, make an appointment with a doctor. They can do an examination and find out the cause.

Breasts may naturally swell during your menstrual cycle. Swelling or dimpling at other times may be an indicator of breast cancer.

You may want to talk with a doctor if you notice:

  • swelling in one breast but not the other
  • swelling in your breasts outside of your menstrual cycle
  • one breast suddenly appearing larger than the other
  • breast swelling that occurs with other symptoms

Swelling in one or both breasts can also occur with other health conditions, including mastitis.

Changes in nipple appearance may happen over time and be considered typical. But if your nipple becomes inverted, you may want to discuss it with a doctor.

Instead of pointing outward, an inverted nipple is pulled into the breast.

An inverted nipple itself doesn’t mean you have breast cancer. Some people may have a flat nipple that looks inverted, and others can develop an inverted nipple over time. Still, a doctor should investigate and rule out cancer.

A type of breast cancer called Paget disease that affects the nipples can affect your skin. On your breasts or nipples, you may notice:

  • peeling
  • scaling
  • flaking

This is a symptom of breast cancer but can also be a symptom of eczema (atopic dermatitis) or another skin condition.

A doctor can run tests to determine the cause of these symptoms and recommend treatment.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an aggressive but rarer form of breast cancer that affects the skin and lymph vessels of the breast. It may cause a rash as an early symptom. Unlike other types of breast cancer, IBC doesn’t usually cause lumps.

In the case of IBC, the rash may be:

It may appear like clusters of insect bites.

These symptoms may fluctuate over time as the cancer grows.

A rash isn’t the only visual symptom of IBC. This type of cancer can also change the appearance of your breasts.

You may notice dimpling or pitting. The skin on your breast may begin to look like an orange peel due to underlying inflammation.

Can breast cancer be found in the armpit?

Yes, breast cancer can spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit, known as axillary lymph nodes, especially in more advanced stages.

Are breast cancer lumps in the armpit hard?

Breast cancer-related lumps in the armpit can be hard, but not always. The texture of a lump can vary depending on various factors, such as the type of breast cancer and its stage.

Can skin cancer look like breast cancer?

Skin cancer can sometimes resemble breast cancer if it appears on the breast skin or nipple.

Skin cancer on the breast typically presents as a new or changing mole, lesion, or patch of skin that may have irregular borders, different colors, or an unusual shape.

In contrast, breast cancer often presents as a lump or thickening in the breast tissue, changes in the skin texture or color of the breast, nipple discharge, or changes in the shape or size of the breast.

It’s important to consult a healthcare professional for proper evaluation and diagnosis.

Does a mammogram show inflammatory breast cancer?

A mammogram can show signs of inflammatory breast cancer, but it may not always be conclusive. Additional imaging tests and a biopsy are often needed for a definitive diagnosis.

Breast cancer can be aggressive and life threatening, but with early diagnosis and treatment, the survival rate is high.

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer if diagnosed before it spreads from the breasts to other parts of the body is 99%.

If the cancer spreads to nearby sites, the survival rate is 86%. If it spreads to distant sites, the 5-year survival rate is 30%.

You can improve your chances of early detection and treatment by:

  • developing a routine of self-breast examinations
  • making an appointment with a doctor if you notice any changes in your breasts
  • getting regular mammograms

Mammogram recommendations vary depending on age and risk, so talk with a doctor about when you should start and how frequently you should have a mammogram.

If you receive a breast cancer diagnosis, know you’re not alone. Find support from others who are living with breast cancer. Download Healthline’s free app here.

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