Some breast tissue cells can go through genetic changes and grow out of control, which leads to breast cancer. Many types of breast cancer exist and have unique symptoms. Signs differ widely, and some people don’t have early symptoms at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the US, 12.9% of cisgender women may get a breast cancer diagnosis during their lifetime, according to 2017–2019 data from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). There’s no sure way to prevent the disease, but it’s easier to treat if diagnosed early, per the American Cancer Society (ACS). This means it’s crucial to pay attention to your breasts and know the symptoms.
You might detect changes in your breasts while doing everyday activities such as taking a shower. The ACS recommends if you have an average risk of breast cancer start regular screening mammograms between the ages of 45–54 (but you can start as early as 40).
If you have a higher risk of breast cancer, the ACS recommended starting yearly screenings at 30. High risk means you have:
- Family history of breast cancer
- Specific genetic mutations
- Prior radiation therapy to the chest
- Certain health conditions
Here are some common early signs of breast cancer. Trust your gut, and never hesitate to talk to a healthcare provider.
A New Breast Lump
A lump in the breast, sometimes as little as a pea, is the most common early sign of breast cancer, per the ACS. That said, most breast lumps are not cancer, per the CDC. If you find one:
- You may have a non-cancerous breast cyst—a lump filled with fluid—or a fibrocystic condition, per the CDC.
- Cancerous lumps are more likely to be painless and with irregular edges, per the ACS.
- Cancerous lumps can sometimes be “soft, round, tender, or even painful,” per the ACS.
- A lump in the armpit can also be a sign of concern.
Breast Appearance Changes
Some changes in the breast are natural and can occur because of weight changes, aging, around your period, menopause, or during pregnancy. Hormonal medications like birth control pills or menopausal hormone therapy can make breasts denser, according to the NCI.
Sometimes, if you have breast cancer, you may notice other changes before you can feel a lump. Forms of breast cancer, such as aggressive inflammatory breast cancer, may come without any lumps. Early breast appearance changes that could signal breast cancer include, per the ACS and CDC:
- Swelling of all or part of the breast
- Dimpling (the skin looking like an orange peel)—typically a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer
- Skin changes such as dryness, thickness, or flaking
- An indentation that doesn't go away when you take off your bra
- Sudden changes in color
- Other changes in shape and size unexplained by natural or medication-related causes
The nipple or nipple area can also be affected. Nipple changes that may be a breast cancer symptom include:
- Inverted nipple, or nipple that turns inward: This can be a natural change, though.
- Skin changes in the nipple area: Changes include redness, dryness, crusting, or flaking.
- Discharge that isn’t breast milk, such as blood: This can also be caused by birth control pills, medications, and infections, per the NCI
Breast Thickening or Pain
Your breast may feel thicker, or you may feel pain in part or all of it, per the CDC. Both symptoms are often signs of a less serious condition—birth control pills may make breasts denser, and fibrosis (a common condition that causes lumps in the breast) can cause pain, especially around a person's period, per the NCI. But talk to a healthcare provider to rule out cancer.
Experiencing any of these changes can be scary, but it’s important to remember that most aren’t due to breast cancer. And if you get a diagnosis, know there are many treatment options already available, with more in the works. Just make sure to see a healthcare provider ASAP—early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for a better outcome.