8 Early Signs Of Breast Cancer Doctors Want You To Know About

Your boobs and you both deserve the best care.

A closeup of a woman's breasts folded over her knees. This article explains early signs of breast cancer you might not know about.
Igor Ustynskyy/Moment/Getty Images

When it comes to the early symptoms of breast cancer, it’s not all about lumps. Breast cancer can make itself known via dimpling skin, strange nipple discharges, rashes, changes in breast shape, and other lesser-known symptoms. That’s why it’s important not to dismiss any odd new developments on your nipples or breasts, even if you don't feel any lumps; they could turn out to be a signal that all isn’t well.

“It’s important to become familiar with your own body and be able to recognize any changes,” Dr. Janet Yeh M.D., a breast surgeon at NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn, tells Bustle. She stresses the importance of getting mammograms done starting at age 40, or even earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer. Even if you're not having mammograms just yet, knowing what's "normal" for your chest and what's not will help you notice when something changes or isn’t quite right.

Early signs of breast cancer show up when the cancer is new, and may not have developed to a more advanced stage that requires more intensive treatment. It's important to try to catch them early because it significantly increases your chances of successfully beating it. Breast cancer that's found and treated when it's still stage 1A (a cancer smaller than a peanut that hasn't spread anywhere) has a five-year relative survival rate of 100%, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Here are some early signs of breast cancer that you might not have known about. If any of them turn up, it’s a good idea to contact your primary care physician as soon as possible to ask about your next steps. Your boobs and you both deserve the best care.

Lumps In The Breast Or Underarm

You probably have it down-pat to scan your breasts occasionally for lumps, which can be an early signal of cancer. “Beyond feeling a lump in your breast, you may also feel a lump in your underarm,” Dr. Crystal Fancher M.D., a surgical breast oncologist at the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Bustle. These lumps can indicate that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit, which can also swell up whenever you feel sick or are fighting off an illness. This is still classified as an early sign if the lumps in your boob and underarm are small.

Any lump in your breast or armpit is concerning. “Masses can feel like a hard marble, and be mobile or less defined and non- mobile or fixed,” Dr. Richard Reitherman M.D., medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center, tells Bustle. But soft masses should be checked out too.

Bloody Nipple Discharge

Dr. Yeh says that bloody nipple discharge is a known sign of breast cancer. It can also be caused by other, more benign illnesses, like blockages in your milk ducts. A good rule of thumb is, if blood shows up, you should seek medical attention.

Nipple Retraction

Retraction of the nipple, where it suddenly turns from an outie to an innie, can be a sign of cancer, Dr. Fancher says. This is because the cancerous tissue might be pulling at the wall of your boobs, drawing the nipple inward. If this happens on any other part of the breast, too, it could point to cancer.

Lumpy, Dimpling Skin

“On your breast, you may notice dimpling of the skin, swelling or redness, or an orange peel appearance of the skin,” Dr. Fancher says. Anything like puffiness or a noticeable change in the texture of your chest's skin should also be checked out, Dr. Reitherman says. “Although unlikely, any changes can be a sign of breast cancer.”

Skin Discoloration

If the skin on your boobs changes color in a particular area and you don’t know why, that could be a symptom of breast cancer. Dr. Fancher says darkening skin is a particular concern, as is persistent, unexplained redness. “These changes may be noticeable only in certain positions relative to gravity,” Dr. Reitherman says. “It is important to check for this category of change when you are lying down on your back rolling side to side, bending over, or upright facing a mirror while positioning your hands behind your neck.”

Changes In Breast Shape

Any change in your boob’s size or shape, Dr. Fancher says, should be noted, as should any changes in the way they feel. Some people get swollen breasts during their period that then shrink when the period stops, but cancer won't be like that; the change will likely seem to be permanent, or won't change depending on where you are in your cycle.

Itching, Flaking Or Crusting Of The Nipple

Patchy rashes on your nipples, skin swelling, and other skin changes can be signs,” Dr. Yeh says. Itching, flaking, or crusting on one nipple can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. It could also be a symptom of Paget’s Disease. Paget's Disease is an inflammation of the nipple that's associated with breast cancer; 1 to 4% of all breast cancer patients experience it. It can be hard to distinguish whether nipple irritation is eczema, an allergic reaction, or something else, so it's a good idea to go to the doctor.

New Pain In An Area Of The Breast

New pain in one area of the breast that does not go away may also be a sign,” Dr. Fancher says. But, Dr. Reitherman says, boob pain can be difficult to assess. “Most commonly, focal pain is cycle related and may vary from month to month,” he says. If it's still there after a bruise or swelling from your period would have subsided, talk to a doctor – and if you find any skin thickening or a hard lump along with the pain, Dr. Reitherman says, you need to take urgent action.

A lump or bloody nipples don’t immediately mean you're sick, but it’s sensible to be cautious, pay attention, and try to schedule a chat with a medical professional if anything concerns you.


Dr. Crystal Fancher M.D.

Dr. Richard Reitherman M.D.

Dr. Janet Yeh M.D.