What breast cancer looks like: Symptoms of breast cancer

A woman with breast cancer

Key takeaways:

  • Cancer is a life-threatening medical condition and one of the leading causes of death worldwide.
  • Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, especially among people assigned female at birth (AFAB). But, regular physical examinations can help with its early detection.
  • Cancer of the breast may look like pitting skin or an inverted nipple. Breast cancer may also cause the appearance of rash-like clusters on the breast or peeling skin.

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. It is more common in people with vaginas than in those with penises. In 2020, 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer, with up to 685,000 deaths recorded worldwide.

But, more people now survive breast cancer because of early breast cancer detection programs combined with different treatment modes aimed at eradicating such invasive diseases.

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

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 menstrual cycle, 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, we explain what the breast may look like when a person has breast cancer:

1. Rashes on breast skin

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.

2. Scaling, peeling or flaking skin

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

3. 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.

4. Inverted nipple

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

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

Signs and symptoms may point toward breast cancer include:

Nipple discharge

Nipple discharge is normal in women who 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.

Other symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A painful, tender, or itchy breast
  • Redness of the breast
  • Swelling of the breast
  • One breast feeling warmer, heavier, and larger than the other

Breast cancer is more common in 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 breast cancers are unilateral. What this means is that breast cancer also occurs in one breast.

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

Do men develop breast cancer too?

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:

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

  • 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 organizations do not recognize 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

Photo by Philipe Spitalier on Unsplash

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.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

When should you worry about a lump in your breast?

Not all lumps on the breast are cancerous. In fact, about 90% of lumps in the breast are benign and not cancerous. Breast lumps that are cancerous tend to be hard, irregular in shape, nodular, and fixed to the underlying breast tissue. Speak to your doctor if you notice a hard lump that wasn't in your breast before, especially if you experience other symptoms like nipple discharge and inverted nipples.

What does breast cancer look like on ultrasound?

On ultrasound, breast cancer lumps typically appear as slightly darker irregular masses with small lobes on the masses (microlobulation), a branching pattern, and acoustic shadowing.

What does inflammatory breast cancer look like?

The skin of the breast in a person with inflammatory breast cancer may look reddish-purple, pink, or bruised. The breast skin may have ridges or appear to be pitted or thickened. One of the breasts may look bigger than the other due to swelling.

Where does a lump typically appear in the breast in people with breast cancer?

Cancerous lumps in the breast commonly develop from the mammary ducts or glands and often appear in the upper, outer section of the breast or close to the armpit. But it can also appear in other breast areas, on the surface or deeper inside the breast tissue.


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