A lump isn’t the only breast cancer symptom to keep your eye out for. In fact, preliminary research presented at the UK-based National Cancer Research Institute’s 2016 conference suggests that 1 in 6 women diagnosed with breast cancer first report a symptom other than a lump.
Because there’s not as much awareness of these less common breast cancer symptoms, the researchers hypothesized that so-called “atypical presentations” could be delaying some women’s diagnoses. Of course, an earlier diagnosis results in earlier treatment, which typically tends to work best, says Joseph Weber, MD, a breast surgical oncologist at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee.
That’s not to say you should stop inspecting your breasts. In the new study, 83 percent of the women who had breast cancer symptoms and were diagnosed found a lump first. However, a little more awareness of other signs can’t hurt. “Our results highlight opportunities for a shift in emphasis in symptom awareness campaigns toward breast symptoms other than breast lump,” the researchers write.
Dr. Weber agrees. “If women notice any changes in their breasts, they need to have a professional evaluate them,” he says. “Talk to a doctor about anything that looks different from their normal appearance.” Here are the main breast cancer symptoms to watch out for.
Skin irritation or dimpling
A rough patch of skin that feels scaly or thicker than usual or skin that starts to dimple can signal breast cancer, Dr. Weber says. With some breast cancers, channels that go from the inside of the breast to the skin become blocked, resulting in skin changes that make the breast look like it’s covered with an orange peel.
Breast or nipple pain
Many things can cause pain in your breasts or nipples, like PMS, pregnancy, or even menopause. But if you notice persistent pain along with other breast cancer symptoms, it’s important to report the experience to your doctor—regardless if it’s a sharp twinge or a dull ache.
Some breast cancers will cause what’s called nipple inversion or retraction, in which the nipple turns inward. Typically, that’s because a mass is growing inside the breast and changes its shape, Dr. Weber explains. In the recent research, 7 percent of the women who were diagnosed with breast cancer reported nipple abnormalities.
Another possible nipple abnormality can be discharge that’s not breast milk. Nipple discharge is, thankfully, most often not cancer, but it’s important to see a doctor immediately if the discharge comes out without you touching or squeezing the nipple, especially if it’s bloody and only affecting one side.
Color or texture changes
This can include redness, darkening, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin. One type of breast cancer called Paget disease—a rare form that starts at your breast ducts and spreads to the nipple and areola—is often accompanied by a rash.
Swelling of all or part of a breast
Inflammatory breast cancer often starts with red, inflamed skin that swells as cancer cells clog the vessels that carry lymph fluid.
One bit of good news: fewer women are getting breast cancer than ever before. “Cancer is not an inevitability. Women have more control over the disease than they think,” says Margaret I. Cuomo, MD, author of A World Without Cancer. “Everything we do from the moment we wake—from what we eat and drink to whether or not we exercise and avoid BPA, parabens, and other carcinogenic chemicals—is a factor that can turn on or off the genetic switches in our bodies, including ones that could lead to cancer. The risk of many cancers, including breast cancer, can be significantly reduced by living a healthy lifestyle.”