The Signs of Breast Cancer

In the United States, it is estimated that a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 12.15% or 1 in 8.[1] No one wants to be a part of that statistic, but the potential is there. Understanding the signs and symptoms of breast cancer may help you recognize it early and potentially save your life.

The Most Common Sign of Breast Cancer

The most common initial finding for breast cancer is a lump or mass in the breast.[2] They may be discovered by several means, including but not limited to the following:

  • Accidentally – while taking a shower or bath, you may notice a lump in your breast that was not there before
  • Self-examination – commonly done in the shower or in the bathroom mirror, a mass may be felt or even visible
  • Intimacy – your partner notices something different about your breast and mentions it to you
  • Annual physical – as part of your annual physical after the age of 40 a clinical breast exam should be done by your doctor, doctors will keep records about the exam commenting on any normal or abnormal findings, making it easier to determine if a lump is new or typical for you
  • Annual screening mammogram – mammogram can identify microcalcifications that may be an early sign of cancer, even when no mass is noticeable on the physical exam, they can also identify solid masses that may be suspicious
  • Not all lumps or masses are breast cancer. You may simply have a benign tumor, cyst or multiple collections of dense breast tissue. But by having an increased awareness of what is normal or abnormal in your own breast and using a combination of the modalities above, it is possible to determine what a lump or mass may be.

Other Symptoms of Breast Cancer

There are several other signs and symptoms of cancer that you should be aware of. Some of these include:

  • A lump or mass in or near your armpit. Breast tissue extends into your armpit and this area should not be neglected during exams.
  • Swelling, redness, warmth or a rash. This is usually due to blockage of lymphatic channels by cancer cells.
  • Persistent scaling around the nipple.
  • The nipple invert or flatten due to retraction of ligaments by a tumor
  • Bleeding or discharge from the nipple.
  • Dimpling of the skin, causing it to look like an orange peel. This is called ‘peau d’orange’, and is caused by a tumor that shortens the ligaments connecting the breast tissue to your skin.

Any of these signs may be seen when cancer is present, and may indicate that it has progressed to a more advanced stage. However, some of these signs may be present without cancer making it important to see your doctor as soon as possible to make sure that it is not.

Wrong Diagnosis

Even with the technology we have today, breast cancer can me missed despite following appropriate screening guidelines. Fortunately, most breast cancer grows relatively slowly, and if missed one year may be caught the next. This stresses the importance of being faithful with your yearly screening. New exams are always compared to prior exams, and having several normal exams/mammograms to compare to makes an abnormal exam more obvious. The following symptoms often lead to the wrong diagnosis initially:

  • Redness of the skin (erythema), on or around your breast
  • Warmth of the breast, typically but not always associated with redness
  • Pain or heaviness of the breast
  • Itching, scaling or a yellow crust around the nipple

If any of these are found, you may receive a misdiagnosis of mastitis (infection of the breast), which is treated first with antibiotics. If the antibiotics do not start to resolve these symptoms within 1-2 weeks, see your doctor immediately and discuss the possibility of another diagnosis.

What to do if you notice a change in your breast…

If you find a new lump, mass or any change in your breast that concerns you, it is important that you do not delay seeking a medical professional. Even if they do not recommend that you have a battery of tests to determine what the mass is, history and physical exam alone can be enough to determine what the mass is not.

If your clinician has any suspicion of cancer or is not quite sure based on the above, he or she will arrange for further testing as they see fit.


Unfortunately, breast cancer is common. Early detection is the key to increased survival. Know the common signs of breast cancer. Examine your breasts regularly. If you have any question that something is abnormal, consult your doctor as soon as possible. It may just save your life.


[1]  SEER Stat Fact Sheets (2011) Retrieved from National Cancer Institute at:

[2] Alschuler, L. N. and Gazella, K. A. (2010). The Definitive Guide to Cancer. An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment and Healing 3rd edition. Berkley: Celestial Arts.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.