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

Your boobs and you both deserve the best care.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A closeup of a woman's breasts folded over her knees. This article explains early signs of breast ca...
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The lumps are the early symptoms of breast cancer you’re familiar with. But the condition can show up in other ways, too: Breast cancer can manifest in the body as dimpling skin, strange nipple discharges, rashes, changes in breast shape, and other lesser-known symptoms. The important thing is to note any odd new developments on your nipples or breasts, even if you don’t feel any lumps — they could turn out to be an early 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 earlysigns of breast cancer that you might not be aware of. 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. You and your boobs deserve the best care.

Lumps In The Breast Or Underarm

If you don’t already have it down-pat to scan your breasts occasionally for lumps — which can be an early signal of cancer — consider this your sign to make it your new monthly habit. An easy way to do it is in the shower: Use your three middle fingers to press down (using light, medium, and then firm pressure) all over your breast. You’re looking for lumps, of course, but also any knots, as well as any spots that feel thicker than usual. Once you’ve done this for several months and you’ve gotten to know your breasts, you’ll also be looking for anything that feels different.

But it’s not just your breasts that you should be checking. “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.

Nipple Discharge

Nipple discharge is common, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong (even if you aren’t pregnant or lactating). Then again, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can be an early sign of breast cancer. In particular, 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 Size or 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. One of the best things you can do to increase your odds of breast cancer early: Get to know your own boobs! Know their shape, their size, their feel, their look, and don’t dismiss any noticeable changes.


Dr. Crystal Fancher M.D.

Dr. Richard Reitherman M.D.

Dr. Janet Yeh M.D.

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