5 Sneaky Signs of Breast Cancer

By Christa Sgobba |

Protect your breasts by staying proactive and informed. Here’s what every woman (and man) should know.

SilverSneakers Breast Cancer

How many symptoms of breast cancer can you name? Take your time. We’ll wait.

If you said more than one—a lump in your breast—you’re ahead of most: Only 48 percent of women 70 and older could name a symptom other than a lump, according to a recent survey from Public Health England.

While a lump is still the most common symptom, there are other seemingly innocuous signs that most women ignore. In fact, about one in six women diagnosed with breast cancer have a symptom other than a breast lump, according to a new study published in Cancer Epidemiology. These women tend to wait longer to see their doctor, which can increase their risk of a negative outcome.

The earlier breast cancer is caught, the better chance a person has of surviving. When diagnosed at the local stage—meaning the cancer has not spread beyond the primary site—a woman’s chance of surviving five or more years is 99 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.

How can you catch something early? If you’re a woman, continue getting mammograms—which are excellent at detecting cancers before they cause any symptoms—as directed by your doctor.

And for both women and men, familiarize yourself with what your breasts look and feel like. The vast majority of breast cancer cases occur in women, but men can also be affected. If you notice something new, get it checked, says Regina Rosenthal, M.D., a general surgeon practicing breast surgery at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Here are five examples of what “something new” may be. If you notice any of them, call your doctor to discuss next steps.

Symptom #1: Skin Dimples

Skin changes on your breast like dimpling—say, your breast takes on the dotted texture of an orange peel—can signal inflammatory breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease.

“Our concern, or what we want to rule out, is a cancer or mass that’s pulling the skin inward, leading to a dimpling,” says Priya Thomas, M.D., an assistant professor in the division of clinical cancer prevention and breast medical oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Symptom #2: One Breast Suddenly Looks Bigger Than the Other

It’s normal for your breasts to be slightly asymmetrical. But if you only notice the change over a short period of time, it’s possible that what you’re seeing is actually swelling, Dr. Thomas says.

Thickening of the skin or swelling of the breast, where one breast starts to look larger than the other, can also be a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer.

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Symptom #3: A Rash on Your Breast

A rash, which can either look red or like a purplish discoloration, can also signal inflammatory breast cancer, Dr. Rosenthal says.

With inflammatory breast cancer, the cancer blocks some of the lymph vessels to your skin. That’s why you’re more likely to see skin changes like the redness, swelling, and skin thickening, Dr. Thomas explains.

But it’s important to note that things like a rash and redness are way more likely to have another cause, Dr. Rosenthal says. For instance, an allergic reaction or skin sensitivity—say, to a new laundry detergent—could cause irritation. If that’s the case, you may see the same rash on other parts of your body too. Infections of the breast (mastitis) may also cause a rash. While this is more common in breastfeeding women, it can affect all ages.

Symptom #4: Scabbing, Flaking, or Any Changes Around Your Nipple

It’s important to pay close attention to your nipples, Dr. Thomas says. Nipple abnormalities were the second most common symptom for breast cancer in the Cancer Epidemiology study, affecting 7 percent of women.

If your nipple used to point outward and now pulls inward, that can be a sign of a potential mass behind it. Spontaneous discharge, especially if it’s bloody, can be worrisome too.

“Often, when they take their bra off, women notice a bloody stain near the nipple area,” Dr. Thomas says. This is another warning sign that there’s a mass behind the nipple, or even elsewhere in the breast.

Paget disease of the breast, a rare form of breast cancer involving the skin of the nipple and sometimes the areola, can also cause noticeable changes, she says. The presentation varies in each person, but it can look like scabbing, flaking, or crustiness around the nipple.

Symptom #5: A Lump in Your Armpit

A lump in your armpit can be as harmless as an ingrown hair or infection, but it could also be a sign of breast cancer, Dr. Rosenthal says. That’s because breast cancer can spread to your lymph nodes, and it usually migrates to the glands under the armpit first.

“Sometimes,” she says, “a woman will notice this as the first sign of cancer.”

If your armpit lump is caused by an ingrown hair or infection, it often occurs very close to the surface of your skin, and comes with redness or pain, Dr. Rosenthal says. An armpit lump without those signs may be a sign of breast cancer. For a proper diagnosis, call your doctor, especially if the lump persists longer than a week or two.

What Else You Should Know

Don’t underestimate the power of a healthy lifestyle. About 40 percent of cancer cases diagnosed in the United States are associated with excess weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes breast cancer in postmenopausal women, colorectal cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

The good news: Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can help protect you against many different types of cancer. Try these weight loss tips. And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check your eligibility for free access to gyms and fitness classes through SilverSneakers here. Already a member? Find a location here.

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