Whether you have a family history of breast cancer or just make sure you do a breast check every now and then, you're likely aware of the main
symptom of breast cancer: a lump or a mass in the breast. However, experts tell Bustle that there are other possible signals of breast cancer, and if you're only looking for a mass, other symptoms may be missed. Breast surgery oncologist Dr. Janie Grumley, director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John's Center in California, tells Bustle, “For most patients, breast cancer does not elicit any symptoms. In general, if patients are doing screening, signs of cancers are picked up before patients experience any symptoms." While the presence of a lump, or a "new mass," is the most common symptom of breast cancer, Dr. Grumley says it's by no means the only one.
Knowing other breast cancer symptoms, even the ones that are rare and unusual, is vital. Around
12% of all American women will develop invasive breast cancers in their lifetime, with 268,600 new cases expected in 2019, according to the American Cancer Society. That works out to around one in every eight women — and early detection can be crucial when it comes to treating breast cancer.
“While breast cancer more commonly presents as a lump in the breast or as an abnormal finding on a routine mammogram, it may also present in other ways,"
Dr. Amy L. Waer, interim department head of medical education at the Health Science Center at the College of Medicine of Texas A&M, tells Bustle. Men and people who don't identify as women can also experience breast cancer — so if these symptoms appear in anyone, they need to be checked out for cancer too.
Here are seven unusual symptoms of breast cancer that doctors say you shouldn't ignore.
If one of your nipples begins to look or feel different, it may be a cause for concern, experts tell Bustle. "
Hardness of the nipple or retraction of the nipple that is asymmetric compared to the other side can be a sign of changes that need medical attention," Dr. Grumley tells Bustle. Nipple retraction, Dr. Waer explains, means the nipple "turning inward"; while most of our nipples naturally point out, some cancerous tumors can mean the nipple begins to be pulled into the breast tissue.
Nipple discharge is pretty common and isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. "Nipple discharge is a common complaint and is usually related to non-cancer-related causes," Dr. Grumley tells Bustle. However, both Dr. Grumley and Dr. Waer say that if
your nipple starts discharging blood, it's a good idea to get it checked out. "When there is bloody nipple discharge, there is a small chance this may be an early sign of breast cancer and should be brought to the attention of a physician," Dr. Grumley says.
Pain In A Particular Spot On The Breast Or Nipple
If you have a sharp, stabbing pain at a particular point in your breast or nipple, it may be a cause for concern. Dr. Waer explains that this is called "
focal breast or nipple pain," and can be a signal of developing breast cancer. If it doesn't resolve and has no other apparent cause, it needs to be examined.
Dimples On The Breast Surface
Everybody's breasts are different, but if you start to see some serious changes in the skin surface of your breast, it's a concern, experts tell Bustle. "Changes in the texture of the
breast skin such as dimpling or puckering," Dr. Waer says, are a possible signal of breast cancer. Dr. Grumley explains why: "Dimpling of the skin may be an indication that there is a mass or cancer that is pulling on the skin." To examine your breasts for dimpling, she says, use a mirror, move your arms out to the side and overhead, and look carefully for marks that look like indents, dimples or puckers.
Swelling & Redness With No Pain
There are several reasons you may experience redness or swelling on your breasts, but if you experience thickening of the skin or a rash without any apparent cause, Dr. Waer tells Bustle, it needs to be checked out.
A rare symptom of breast cancer, Dr. Grumley says, is actually
redness and swelling of the breast skin with an absence of pain. "Most swelling and redness of the breast is related to an infection," she tells Bustle. "However, infection is commonly associated with pain. Swelling and or redness not associated with pain should be evaluated for possible underlying issues. In very rare cases this can be a sign of cancer.”
We don't typically think of breast tissue as related to the armpits, but if you experience "swelling, pain or a mass in the armpit area," says Dr. Waer, it may actually be related to breast cancer. Swellings in the armpits may indicate that the cancer
has spread to the lymph nodes, which reside in the armpits. The American Cancer Society notes that lumps in these areas may appear before the breasts show any symptoms at all.
A Sudden Shift In Breast Shape
You likely know your own breasts pretty well — so if one of them begins to alter radically, you need to pay attention. A "sudden
change in the size or shape of a breast," Dr. Waer says, is an unusual symptom of breast cancer, but it does happen. Breasts with cancerous masses inside can change shape as a tumor grows. These issues can also be caused by a benign tumor or cyst, so it's best to get a mammogram to have them investigated.
The emphasis placed by TV shows and movies on breast lumps as the main symptom of cancer might have saved a lot of lives — but it also misses a lot of the picture, experts say. "Most women know that if they feel a mass they need to be evaluated," Dr. Grumley tells Bustle. "However, there are some less common symptoms that should prompt medical attention." If any of these symptoms appear and there isn't an obvious explanation, like an infection, it's a good idea to seek medical help as soon as you can.