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Early signs of breast cancer

There is no single or definite symptom indicating you definitely have Breast Cancer. Most of the symptoms related to Breast Cancer also present in non-cancerous conditions, so it is important not to panic if you notice anything unusual. Remain calm and ensure you get it checked out by a Healthcare Professional.

If you have Breast Cancer, will you feel a lump?

Most Breast Cancers present as a lump in the breast. Often women are surprised by the unexpected appearance of a lump and are unsure whether to get it investigated. No matter how suddenly the lump appears or what it feels like, it is very important to see your doctor. Cancer lumps often feel hard and craggy and grow steadily in the breast. Eventually, the cancer spreads to the lymph glands, causing hard lumps to be felt under the arm too.

Approximately 10% of Breast Cancers present without a lump, and in fact when you do feel a lump in your breast, around 80-85% of those are benign. Most lumps felt in the breast are not cancers, but might instead be cysts or masses known as fibroadenomas.

Cancer can show up without a lump, and if you experience some of these other symptoms you should also get checked out.

  • Change in the size and shape of the breast
  • Thickening of the skin of the nipple or ulceration
  • Eczema of the nipple, itching or scaly patches
  • Nipple turning inwards
  • Thickening or dimpling of the skin of the breast
  • Noticeable lumps under the arm

Is Breast Cancer painful?

Unlike most cancers, Breast Cancer does not present with pain. This does not mean that if you have a painful lump it can’t be cancer, but it is unusual for pain to be the first thing a woman with Breast Cancer notices. The earliest and most common symptoms are a lump in the breast or discharge from the nipple. Ideally, we want Breast Cancer to be diagnosed via mammogram, before a lump even appears, because we know that the earlier a cancer is detected, the more successfully it can be treated.

Is nipple discharge normal?

It is true that certain nipple discharges are very normal – take breastfeeding for instance! It is also quite common to develop a discharge after breastfeeding for a while.

Not all nipple discharges are however normal, and they can mean different things. Breast specialists worry particularly about one-sided nipple discharges that come from just one place on the nipple, regardless of colour. They also get concerned about any nipple discharges that have blood in them.

The best approach is having any nipple discharge checked out by a specialist who can help you understand what the problem is, and help you solve it too. Remember not to squeeze your nipples – they may respond by producing or increasing a discharge. If you or a partner have been squeezing your nipples, the first step to preventing further discharge is by stopping this practice.

What changes in the nipple are related to Breast Cancer?

There are two particular changes in the nipple which may indicate Breast Cancer. The first is an itchy, scaly, eczematous rash which can develop on the areola (the darker-coloured patch of skin around the nipple) or on the nipple itself. This kind of rash can cause the skin to peel or become red and raw. It is termed ‘Paget’s disease’ and is a spread of cancerous or pre-cancerous cells along the ducts to the nipple, where they cause a rash or an ulcer.

The second symptom that can develop is an inversion and in-drawing of the nipple. Many women have naturally occurring and normal inverted nipples, but if a nipple suddenly becomes inverted, particularly on one side only, it is cause for concern and should be investigated.

Whilst all cancer is treatable and potentially curable, it is best to detect it as early as possible.

Remember to practice self breast examinations on a monthly basis and to go for screening mammography and sonar every year after the age of 40. Get your GP, gynaecologist or a breast specialist to examine you once a year too. Being breast-aware also means learning to love your breasts and getting to know your body and to #KnowYourNormal. You may be the best person to notice when something is wrong with your body, once you learn what is and is not normal for you.