Breast Cancer Symptoms: What You Need to Know

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women, accounting for around 30% of all new cancer diagnoses in females. Approximately 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. The good news is that when detected early, breast cancer is highly treatable. Understanding the signs and symptoms of breast cancer is crucial for early detection.


Breast cancer originates when healthy cells in the breast change and grow out of control, forming a mass or lump called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women but men can get it too.

Some of the most common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Lumps in the breast
  • Changes in breast size or shape
  • Nipple discharge
  • Changes to the skin of the breast
  • Swelling in the armpit

However, these symptoms may also have other causes besides cancer. It is important to have any unusual changes in the breast properly examined by a healthcare professional.

Lumps in the Breast

A breast lump is the most well-known symptom of breast cancer. Lumps are often hard, irregularly shaped, and painless, though some may be soft, rounded, or even tender. The lump may feel different than surrounding breast tissue and may feel attached to the skin or muscle tissue. According to the American Cancer Society, 8 out of 10 breast lumps are not cancerous. However, it is crucial that any new lump is examined by your doctor right away.

Lumps can develop anywhere in the breast or armpit region. Some common lump locations include:

  • Upper, outer area of the breast
  • Lower, inner portion near the sternum
  • Directly behind the nipple
  • In the armpit area

Lumps can vary significantly in size. Some are so small they can only be felt during a breast self-exam while others may be quite large and easily visible.

While lumps are the most noticeable sign, other changes within the breast that indicate cancer include thickening, swelling, or hardening of the breast tissue. Make sure to have your doctor examine any new masses, thickenings, or tissue changes.

Changes in Size or Shape

Many women notice changes in the shape or size of their breasts before finding a distinct lump. The skin may become puckered or dimpled, like the skin of an orange. One breast may appear visibly different than the other if cancer is present. Bending over and looking at your breasts in the mirror helps spot visual changes.

Some specific changes to watch out for include:

  • One breast becoming larger or lower than the other
  • Nipple inversion – the nipple turns inward into the breast
  • A newly asymmetric or uneven appearance to the breasts
  • Pitting, redness, or scaliness of breast skin

Sudden increase in size or shape change could signal rapid growth of cancerous cells. Make sure to have any abnormalities evaluated promptly by your physician. Catching changes early gives the best chance for successful treatment.

Nipple Discharge

A new discharge from the nipples can indicate breast cancer, especially if it is bloody, yellow, or green in color. Normal discharge is often white or pale yellow. Cancerous discharge may also be clear and watery. Discharge comes out without squeezing in cancer cases.

Pay attention to any spontaneous discharge from one or both nipples. Also note if the discharge comes from multiple duct openings in the nipple versus a single spot. Discharge related to cancer more commonly arises from multiple nipple ducts.

While most nipple discharge, particularly milky discharge, does not mean cancer, it is still important to ask your doctor to examine it. Rarely, males may experience nipple discharge as a breast cancer symptom. Any nipple changes in men should be promptly discussed with a healthcare provider.

Skin Changes

Cancerous lumps often adhere to skin tissue, causing puckering, dimpling, indentations or retraction of the skin over the mass. Redness, scaliness, thickness, or pitting of the breast skin can also signal underlying cancer. Breast skin may resemble the skin of an orange peel due to enlarged pores over a cancer growth.

Some specific skin changes to look out for include:

  • Rash or pitting resembling eczema
  • Swelling, redness, or increased warmth
  • Visible veins on the skin surface
  • Sore or ulcer on the breast that won’t heal

Skin conditions like eczema or infections can cause similar skin findings. However, any persisting skin change merits an evaluation by your doctor. Prompt attention to sudden skin abnormalities could help identify cancer in its earliest stages.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Enlarged lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone could indicate breast cancer or the spread of cancer cells. Normal lymph nodes are often not palpable, or felt during an exam. Any noticeable lump in the underarm lymph nodes merits further evaluation by your physician.

Inflammation from infection or injury can also cause swollen nodes, but nodes that are enlarged for no apparent reason should be checked out. Swollen nodes are more likely to be cancer if they feel hard or don’t move during examination. Talk to your doctor about checking not only the armpit region but the supraclavicular and subclavicular lymph node areas near the collarbone.

When to See Your Doctor

It is important to understand common breast cancer symptoms. However, keep in mind that many breast issues such as cysts or infections can cause similar findings. Always make sure to have your physician examine any persistent changes in the breasts, nipple discharge, or skin abnormalities. Prompt medical assessment is key to determining if breast cancer is present or if another condition is responsible.

The earlier breast cancer is identified, the better the outcome with treatment. Do not ignore symptoms out of fear. Catching cancer early before it spreads significantly improves prognosis.

Your doctor will take your medical history and perform an examination of the breasts and nearby lymph nodes. They may order breast imaging tests like a mammogram, ultrasound, or MRI to further evaluate abnormalities. A biopsy of breast tissue may be needed for a definitive diagnosis.

Bottom line: Stay vigilant about self breast exams and knowing your own breast tissue. Report any unusual changes or findings to your doctor right away. Prompt reporting and evaluation of potential breast cancer symptoms offers the best chance for successful treatment. Catching breast cancer early saves lives.


Being aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer allows for early detection and treatment. Typical red flags include breast lumps, nipple discharge, changes in breast size or shape, skin changes, and swollen lymph nodes. Make sure to have any of these breast abnormalities examined by your healthcare provider promptly. Though many breast issues are ultimately benign, identifying cancerous conditions quickly is key to positive outcomes. Through increased awareness and vigilant screening, more women can identify breast cancer in its earliest stages when it is most treatable.

Leave a comment