A lump is the easiest sign of breast cancer to spot, but might not always be there. Watch for these other changes in your breasts.
By Emcara Health Editors
The first Breast Cancer Awareness Month was October 1985. Since then, breast cancer deaths have fallen by more than 40 percent. In other words, awareness works.
Still, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in the United States. It’s also the second-leading cause of cancer deaths (after lung cancer), according to the American Cancer Society. About 1 in 8 women will be told they have breast cancer during their life, at an average age of 62.
Getting a special X-ray called a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer early, says the American Cancer Society. Women between 45 and 54 years old should get a mammogram every year. After age 55, most women can switch to every two years.
Certain women (and men too) have a higher chance of getting breast cancer because they have either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. A study in the journal Cancer Causes & Control suggests these women should start having mammograms every year, starting at age 30. A simple saliva test can check for the presence of these genes.
Women with a parent, sibling, or child who had breast cancer should start screening earlier as well, even if they don’t have the gene.
Talk to your Emcara Health care team or your primary care doctor if you’re interested in being tested for these genes. They will likely recommend genetic counseling first, to ensure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of being tested.
The main sign of breast cancer is a lump (a small, raised area) in the breast, says the American Cancer Society. That’s why the National Library of Medicine recommends that women check their breasts once a month by themselves.
It’s important to note that men benefit from regular self-checks as well, particularly if they have a family history of the disease. About 1 percent of cases of breast cancer in the United States each year are in men.
Most breast lumps are not cancerous. A study in South African Family Practice found that only 10 percent of new breast lumps are actually diagnosed as cancer.
In addition, a study in Cancer Epidemiology found that 1 in 6 women with breast cancer did not have a lump. Not surprisingly, women without lumps often wait longer before seeking medical help.
Along with lumps, what else should women be looking for during a self-exam? There are seven lesser-known symptoms of breast cancer to watch for.
If your breast changes in size or shape, it could be a sign of breast cancer. Swelling can be a sign of a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer, which accounts for up to 5 percent of all cases, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Watch for physical changes in your skin, such as a texture that resembles an orange peel, called peau d’orange. This can make the skin look bumpy or pitted. Also, if a large part of the breast is red, it could be a symptom too, especially if it’s accompanied by skin dimpling.
Pain in the nipple or breast, or tenderness, could be a sign of breast cancer. However, most breast cancers don’t cause pain. In fact, a study in the European Journal of Breast Health found that breast pain was a symptom in only about 3 percent of cases.
Between 10 and 20 percent of women already have inverted nipples (they turn inward), says the National Library of Medicine. With breast cancer, nipples can suddenly turn inward because cancer cells block milk ducts. Sometimes, inverted nipples come with discharge or a breast lump. If you notice these changes, talk to your Emcara Health care team or your primary care doctor.
If the skin on the nipple or around the breast becomes red, dry, flaky, or thickened, it could be an early sign of breast cancer. Other skin changes to watch for include persistent itching, darkening, or scaling. If you notice these skin changes, it’s important to seek medical advice.
Discharge that isn’t breast milk is often one of the earliest signs of breast cancer, happening in 7 to 15 percent of cases, according to a study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The discharge might be bloody, appear suddenly, or occur only in one breast. It’s important to note that other factors like birth control pills, medications, or infections can also cause nipple discharge. If you notice any unusual discharge, talk to your doctor or Emcara Health care team.
When your body is fighting breast cancer and it spreads, your lymph nodes might swell. The American Cancer Society says that breast cancer usually spreads first to the lymph nodes under the arm, also called axillary lymph nodes. If you feel any unusual lumps or swelling in that area, it's important to talk to your doctor or Emcara Health care team.
Your Emcara Health care team is available 24/7 to help you keep up with recommended checkups and screenings. Consider us an extra set of eyes–and ears–when you have concerns. To learn more about the health checks Emcara Health can do in your home, call 1-800-728-0901 from 9 am to 7 pm ET Monday to Friday.