Breast cancer is the leading type of cancer, along with skin cancer, diagnosed in women worldwide.
Anyone can develop this cancer, and it is still not clear what causes it. However, certain factors put you at a higher risk.
Such factors include increasing age, a family history of breast cancer, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive drinking, exposure to radiation, hormone replacement therapy during menopause, ionizing radiation, menstruation starting at an early age and having children late in life or not at all.
Although it is more common among women, men can also get breast cancer.
Women who get annual mammography screenings are much less likely to die from breast cancer than those who do not.
Mammograms make it easier to detect this cancer at an early stage, allowing more effective treatment. However, mammograms are not perfect every time.
Knowing the possible warning signs and changes in the breasts that may signal cancer, you’ll be able to act promptly. It is better to get checked by your doctor and have a false alarm than to miss diagnosing cancer as early as possible.
Here are some important warning signs of breast cancer.
1. Lump in the Breast or Armpit
Feeling a lump in your breast or armpit may be the first warning sign of breast cancer. Such lumps are often hard and painless, though some may be painful. A lump under the armpit may feel hard or thick and dense as compared with the armpit on the other side.
Do not panic when you notice a lump, as it is not always cancerous. A few common causes of breast lumps are hormonal changes in the body, a breast infection and fat necrosis (damaged tissue).
It is important to have your doctor check out any new or suspicious lumps on your breasts to determine the cause.
2. Red or Swollen Breasts
When breasts hurt, most women think it is due to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and when breasts feel hot or appear red, they usually suspect an infection. Swollen breasts with soreness or redness might even be a sign of breast cancer.
A tumor located underneath a breast can push on tissues, making the breast swollen and sore. In some cases, the swelling is more prominent under the arm or under the collarbone.
If you have this symptom for more than a week, be sure to see a doctor.
3. Nipple Discharge
Discharge from your nipple without any squeezing or touching of the breast may make any women wonder. Other than breast milk, any kind of nipple discharge can be a warning sign of breast cancer.
When a tumor starts in the milk ducts just under or around the nipple, it may cause irritation and infection, leading to discharge.
If you notice any nipple discharge, particularly clear or bloody, get it checked by your doctor. Such discharge can also be due to an infection or other condition that needs treatment.
4. Pain in the Breast or Chest Area
If you have an ache, sharp stab or pain in the breast or chest area, it is not a good sign. Sharp pain that comes and goes or a mild electric sensation that you may experience from one breast to another may be a sign of breast cancer.
A tumor located directly behind the nipple or in one of the milk ducts often causes pain and discomfort in the breast.
Though not necessarily a warning sign of cancer, pain in the breast or chest area can be due to other serious health issues that may need treatment. At times, breast pain can be due to hormonal changes in the body, birth control pills, poorly fitting bras and stress.
5. Changes in Breast Appearance
Any change in the shape or size of your breasts is a matter of concern. You also need to keep a close eye on dimpling, shrinkage and recent asymmetry of the breasts.
Deep tissue growth in the breasts may affect their shape or size, leading to physical changes.
As these changes are more about appearance than feel, you might become aware of such changes while looking at yourself in a mirror.
6. Nipples Become Sensitive
A change in nipple appearance or sensitivity can also be a warning sign of breast cancer. Often a breast tumor is located just beneath the nipple, which can lead to changes in the appearance and feel of the nipple. It might become inverted, flattened or indented, and there might be an increase in nipple sensitivity.
A change in the feel or appearance of the skin on the nipple can also be due to mastitis or other reasons.
It is best to discuss it with your doctor to rule out the possibility of cancer.
7. Itching on the Breasts
An unknown cause of itchiness around your breasts can also be a sign of breast cancer, but this is very rare. It may be a sign of a type of cancer called inflammatory breast cancer. Due to the tumor, the skin above the area can become red, inflamed, painful and itchy.
The itchiness is extreme and makes you feel like scratching the skin. No matter how much you scratch or apply ointments or lotion, nothing seems to relieve the itchiness.
If you have a patch of itchy skin or you are not able to reduce the itchiness of your breast, see your doctor right away.
8. Pain in the Upper Back, Shoulder and Neck
When a tumor spreads to the spine, it causes unexplained pain in the upper back, shoulder and neck. People often confuse such pain with sore muscles, a pulled tendon or ligament, or osteoarthritis of the spine. If the pain is due to cancer, it will not go away with stretching the muscles or changing positions.
If you are not able to reduce pain in your back, shoulder and neck through physical therapy, get it checked by your doctor.
Tips to lower breast cancer risk
- Ask your doctor about screening and other ways you can lower your risk.
- Perform breast self-exams once every two months.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes 5 days a week.
- Get enough sleep.
- Avoid drinking alcohol in excess.
- Avoid exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer.
- Do not avoid breastfeeding your babies.
- Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy.