Symptoms of breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer type and the easiest to detect, yet many people don't self-examine their breasts. Knowing what breast cancer looks like will help you get prompt treatment and increase chances of survival.

A woman with breast cancer

Cancer is a dreaded medical condition. It is a leading cause of death worldwide.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there were about 9.5 million cancer-related deaths in 2018 alone and 18.1 million new cases in the same year. The number of new cancer cases is expected to increase to 29.5 million by 2040.

Breast cancer is a type of cancer that is common among the populace. More women have breast cancer than men. In 2020, 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer, with up to 685,000 deaths recorded worldwide.

"As the population grows, so does the rate of breast cancer. We don't, however, have scientific evidence explaining why breast cancer is more common than other types of cancer", Theresa Schwartz, a breast cancer surgeon with Henry Ford Health System, said.

Fortunately, there are more breast cancer survivors now than in the 1980s. This is because of early breast cancer detection programmes combined with different treatment modes aimed at eradicating such invasive diseases.

Breast cancer has not been linked to any viral or bacterial infection. However, certain factors like obesity, increasing age, family history of breast cancer, tobacco and alcohol use may increase the risk of breast cancer. 

What the breast looks like with cancer

It is easier to treat cancer when it is detected early. Fortunately, some of the earliest symptoms of breast cancer can be seen and felt.

It is very important to pay attention to any change in the size and shape of the breast. While some women experience changes in the breast at different points in their monthly circle, it is advisable not to overlook some changes. 

If the breast change persists even after your menstrual period or occurs only on one breast, it would be best to see a doctor immediately. 

Below are some breast changes that may signal breast cancer.

Rashes on breast skin

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Rashes on the breast is a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer that occurs when cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels in the skin that covers the breast. It is an aggressive form of breast cancer and causes a red and swollen appearance of the breast. 

The rashes on the breast may look like clusters of insect bites and may also be accompanied by itchiness. 

Scaling, peeling or flaking skin

Scaling, peeling and flaking of skin are symptoms of skin conditions like eczema and atopic dermatitis. However, they are also symptoms of Paget's disease, a type of breast cancer that typically affects the nipples. 

Pitting breast skin

Pitting breast skin is one of the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer. A person with this type of cancer may notice dimpling or pitting. 

Also, the skin surrounding the breast areola may start looking like an orange peel (also called Peau d' orange). This is usually due to an underlying inflammatory reaction.

Inverted nipple

An inverted nipple is when the nipple is pulled into the breast instead of pointing outwards. 

Some women normally have a flat nipple that may look inverted, but suddenly developing an inverted nipple may signal cancer and would need a doctor to run a proper diagnosis to rule out or confirm the condition.

Symptoms of breast cancer

Aside from these changes in breast appearance, other signs may point towards breast cancer. 

Nipple discharge

Nipple discharge is normal in women that are breastfeeding. However, if you are not breastfeeding, you must not ignore a discharge from the nipple.

A nipple discharge in the form of milky, bloody or clear discharge can be a symptom of breast cancer. 

Breast lumps or thickening of breast tissue

Sometimes, breast cancer symptoms are easier to feel than see. A lump or thickness felt in the breast could be a symptom of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is more common on the left breast

One of the risk factors for breast cancer is genetic predisposition. An inherited mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can cause breast cancer.

Breast cancer caused by an inherited mutated copy of either gene typically occurs in younger women and is often bilateral (in both breasts).

Aside from cases of cancer caused by inherited mutated genes, most other times, breast cancers are unilateral. What this means is that breast cancers also occur on one breast.

Studies have shown that most unilateral breast cancers occur on the left breast. The left breast has a 5-10 per cent chance of developing cancer than the right breast. Also, the left side of the body is 5 per cent more likely to develop melanoma, a type of skin cancer.

Do men develop breast cancer too?

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Research has shown that women are more likely to develop breast cancer. The condition is more common in women above 50 years old who have been through menopause. 

This doesn’t mean men do not develop breast cancer too. 99 per cent of breast cancers are diagnosed in women while 1 per cent are diagnosed in men. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 out of every 100 breast cancer cases in the United States occurs in a man. Therefore, it is also vital for men to learn about breast cancer symptoms and risk factors. 

How to self-examine for breast cancer

Self-examination makes it easier to detect changes in breast tissue. Make it a routine to examine your breast at least once every month. 

For women, the best time to run a breast self-examination is a few days after the start of the menstrual cycle. At that period, the breast is likely to be swollen and tender. If you are already in your menopause, you can pick any specific date to examine your breast every month. 

Below is how to do a breast self-exam.

Breast self-exam while standing:

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  • Stand in front of a mirror, keep your shoulders straight and your hands akimbo
  • Look at your breast and observe its shape, size and colour
  • Check for puckering, dimpling or bulging of the skin
  • Check if your nipple’s position is changed or if it is pushed inwards instead of outwards (inverted nipple)
  • Check for any redness, rashes or soreness
  • Look for signs of fluid coming out of your nipples
  • Lift your hands and check for the same changes.

Breast self-exam while lying down:

  • Lie down in a supine position (face up)
  • Use your left hand to feel your right breast and your right hand to feel your left breast
  • Use a firm, smooth touch while keeping your fingers flat together
  • Go in a circular motion, covering the entire breast from side to side and bottom to bottom
  • Feel for any lumps or swelling. 

Some medical organisations do not recognise routine breast self-exams as part of breast cancer screening. This is because there is no concrete evidence that breast self-exams are effective in detecting cancer.

However, doctors believe that it will be best for women to be familiar with their breast anatomy so they can promptly report any changes.

When you should see a doctor

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A breast self-exam is not a reliable way to detect or diagnose breast cancer. However, some women have reported that the first sign of breast cancer they noted was a lump on their breast, which they discovered on their own.

For this reason, it is recommended that women should be familiar with the normal anatomy and consistency of their breasts.

If you notice anything unusual with your breast at any point, you should report it immediately to your doctor. It doesn’t call for panic.

When you see a doctor, the doctor will most likely take your medical history, run physical exams on your breast or order imaging tests. A doctor’s diagnosis will determine whether the change you notice should be ignored or not.


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