Breast cancer refers to cancer that begins in the cells within the breasts. It can metastasize (spread) from the breasts to other areas of the body, such as the bones and liver.

Most of the early symptoms of breast cancer involve changes to the breasts. Some of these are more noticeable than others.

As a rule of thumb, always see your doctor if there are any changes to your breasts. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the less likely it’ll spread and cause life-threatening damage.

Read on to learn more about the effects of breast cancer on the body.

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The effects of breast cancer on the body

At first, breast cancer affects the breast area only. You may notice changes in your breasts themselves. Other symptoms aren’t so obvious until you detect them during a self-exam.

Sometimes your doctor may also see breast cancer tumors on a mammogram or other imaging machine before you notice symptoms.

Like other cancers, breast cancer is broken down into stages. Stage 0 is the earliest stage with the fewest noticeable symptoms. Stage 4 indicates the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

If breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may cause symptoms in those particular areas, too. Affected areas may include the:

  • liver
  • lungs
  • muscles
  • bones
  • brain

The early effects of breast cancer can depend on the exact type of breast cancer you have.

Changes to your breasts

Breast cancer usually starts in one breast. According to the American Cancer Society, the most common sign of breast cancer is a newly formed mass or lump in your breast.

The mass or lump is usually irregularly shaped and painless. However, some cancerous masses can be painful and round in shape. This is why any lump or mass ought to be screened for cancer.

Invasive ductal carcinoma causes lumps and bumps in the breasts. This is a type of breast cancer that forms inside the milk ducts.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer. It makes up about 80 percent of all diagnoses. It’s also more likely to spread to other areas of the body.

Invasive lobular carcinoma can cause breast thickening. This type of breast cancer starts in the glands that produce breast milk. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that up to 15 percent of all breast cancers are invasive lobular carcinomas.

You may notice your breasts have changed color or size. They may also be red or swollen from the cancerous tumor. While breast cancers themselves aren’t usually painful, the resulting swelling can cause breast pain. The cancer lumps may still be painful in some cases, though.

With breast cancer, your nipples may also undergo some noticeable changes.

You might see some clear discharge come out of your nipples, even though you’re not currently breastfeeding. Sometimes the discharge also has a small amount of blood in it. The nipples themselves can also turn inward.

Integumentary (skin) system

Aside from the changes to the breasts themselves, the skin surrounding your breasts can also be affected by breast cancer. It may be extremely itchy and can become dry and cracked.

Some women also experience dimpling of the skin along their breasts that looks like dimples of an orange peel. Thickening of breast tissue is also common in breast cancer.

Immune and excretory systems

In the later stages of breast cancer, the tumors have spread to other lymph nodes. The underarms are some of the first affected areas. This is because of how close they are to the breasts. You may feel tenderness and swelling under your arms.

Other lymph nodes can become affected because of the lymphatic system. While this system is usually responsible for transmitting healthy lymph (fluid) throughout the body, it can also spread cancer tumors.

Tumors may spread through the lymphatic system to the lungs and liver. If the lungs are affected, you might experience:

  • chronic cough
  • shortness of breath
  • other breathing difficulties

When cancer reaches the liver, you may experience:

  • jaundice
  • severe abdominal bloating
  • edema (fluid retention)

Skeletal and muscular systems

It’s also possible for breast cancer to spread to the muscles and bones. You may have pain in these areas as well as restricted movement.

Your joints can feel stiff, especially right after you wake up or stand up from sitting for long periods of time.

Such effects can also increase your risk for injuries due to a lack of mobility. Bone fractures are a risk, too.

Nervous system

Breast cancer can also spread to the brain. This can result in a host of neurological effects, including:

  • blurry or double vision
  • confusion
  • headache
  • memory loss
  • mobility issues
  • speech difficulties
  • seizures

Other systems

Other symptoms of cancers, including those of the breasts, are:

  • excessive fatigue
  • weakness
  • appetite loss
  • unintentional weight loss

It’s important to keep up with mammograms and other types of breast screenings as recommended by your doctor. Imaging tests can detect breast cancer before you even have any symptoms. This can speed up your treatment and create a more positive outcome.